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Getting Connected in Rural England
Mon 15 Jul 2019
Fastershire is a partnership across two neighbouring rural counties of England which aims to bring faster broadband infrastructure to these areas.
The project is led and co-financed by the local authorities Gloucestershire County Council and Herefordshire Council, with funding support from the UK government body ‘Broadband Delivery UK’ (BDUK). The Fastershire project is proving to be an interesting model for closing rural service delivery and technology gaps, but it's not just the hardware that is making a difference in the region.
Fastershire aims to provide broadband internet access to all residents in the two counties by the end of 2020/21, including those residents and businesses in the more remote and sparsely populated rural areas. The current telecommunications industry is very competitive and the market has dictated where infrastructure is currently available and where new investment plans are made. As a result, there has been a general reluctance from suppliers to invest in the more remote areas.
This is why the UK Government, via BDUK, developed a Digital and Connectivity Intervention Strategy and launched the publically-funded Superfast and Ultrafast Programmes. Gloucestershire County Council and Herefordshire Council successfully bid into these programmes and were awarded funding, to which they also allocated matched capital funds from both Authorities to provide public subsidy to help attract new private sector investment in broadband infrastructure across the two counties. Delivery of the physical infrastructure is carried out by those suppliers contracted for the work and then enhanced broadband connectivity is offered to consumers as a choice of packages offered by Internet service providers.
Consequently, Fastershire has already delivered substantially faster broadband infrastructure through fibre to the cabinet (FTC) and fibre to the premises (FTP), through a contract with British Telecom. It is now currently rolling out improved fibre connectivity through a contract with a relatively new supplier, Gigaclear.
In addition to the physical infrastructure enhancement programme, the Fastershire team has developed a demand stimulation programme and various campaigns to encourage local residents and businesses to take up the enhanced and faster connectivity. The team has also developed various initiatives and projects that target training and awareness initiatives and events to specific businesses and residents, including:
Faster Homes improves household internet speed so that the whole family can be online simultaneously. This is particularly important if you are running a ‘home-based’ business or studying remotely.
Faster Business is an extensive business support programme that is designed to help small and medium size (SMEs) businesses get the most from fibre broadband (100 mbps) and be more competitive. Fastershire is expected to help boost the local economy by £420m over the next 10 years.
Faster Farmers is a collaboration between Fastershire and the Herefordshire Rural Hub that offers free support to agricultural and land-based businesses in the two counties. Faster Farmers provides free training and advice to help farmers exploit new digital technology and working methods to expand and grow their business, including workshops and tailored one-to-one advice.
Thanks to additional funding from the Government Equalities Office, the Faster Women project has helped entrepreneurial women develop the digital confidence and internet skills required to develop and grow their businesses by providing networking opportunities, workshops and training.
In addition to the BDUK and Local Authority funding, the Fastershire Team has secured European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) to support additional infrastructure delivery, through further supplier procurement, as well as some European Structural Investment Funds (ESIF) to provide a small grant/voucher scheme to help small businesses apply for funding towards connectivity costs. The team also successfully secured an additional £10.5m from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) in partnership with the Marches Local Economic Partnership, to extend the Fastershire scheme to other rural businesses in more remote and hard to reach communities.
The net result of this series of contracts and initiatives has been a patchwork of provision across the county, reflecting the dynamic nature of the technology and contractor’s capabilities. For example, areas of the Cotswolds have ultrafast (300 mbps+) provision to homes, meaning they have some of the fastest connections for rural areas in Europe, whilst some areas are still waiting for fast broadband connections (up to 30 mbps).
The dynamic nature of the technologies means there has been a lag between businesses realising the new opportunities as the UK continues on its trajectory of being one of the world’s strongest internet economies. In practice these technologies mesh with mobile data services and the use of a range of IT appropriate to the business, in particular tailored software solutions. All of this infrastructure will be the underpinning for the next layer of internet infrastructure upgrade as mobile 5G services appear, offering speeds of up to Gigabit , which are already being rolled out in the UK’s major cities. It is the intersection of technologies and skills that is opening up new rural-urban opportunities.