Rural broadband nightmares - bridging North Yorkshire's digital divide

Superfast North Yorkshire's 1000th switch-on in April 2015 - Sue Burrell  of award-winning Millgate B&B with Derek Richardson of BT Openreach.
Superfast North Yorkshire's 1000th switch-on in April 2015 - Sue Burrell of award-winning Millgate B&B with Derek Richardson of BT Openreach.

One of the most common questions house buyers now ask estate agents in North Yorkshire goes as follows – “is this house well connected?”

Forget the technological jargon, the “fibre optic cables” and the “infrastructure rollouts”, the issue of access to speedy broadband is no longer one of luxury.

At its heart lies a crucial question – are we included in the modern world or excluded from it?

Broadband is particularly essential for anyone who happens to live nowhere near a bank, medical centre or post office.

Download speeds of anything below 25 MB are regarded as slow but there are still parts of North Yorkshire where speeds are as low as three to four MB – or worse.

Beneath the figures about poor broadbands speeds and connections lie real-life stories of social and economic isolation.

One owner of an award-winning Masham-based B&B with previously dreadful broadband connections said, until recently, it was taking as long as a month at a time to confirm online bookings with visitors.

The good news is that, in terms of rural areas, North Yorkshire has been in the vanguard of change in recent years in the shape of the Superfast North Yorkshire project.

Driven by North Yorkshire County Council through its own purpose-built company NYnet in partnership with BT, the aim has been to bring fast, fibre optic broadband to the county’s forgotten outposts.

The aim is simple, to ensure every single home and business in the county enjoys speeds of at least 25Mbps by the end of 2018.

But bridging the digital divide between urban and rural centres in North Yorkshire has proven to be far from easy.

There can be a million small techological challenges involved with laying fibre optic cables to cabinets and premises.

Engineers working in rural areas have even reported being hampered by badgers!

And progress is not cheap. The total budget for Phase 1 of SFNY is claimed to have been £30.95m while in September this year Superfast North Yorkshire project revealed that a further £21m was to be spent on expanding superfast broadband.

Phase 2 is currently ongoing to bring the coverage rate to 90 per cent while the crucial Phase 3 which should raise that figure to 95 per cent by 2018 is awaiting confirmation of government funding.

But Superfast North Yorkshire is already giving a boost to the area’s business prospects.

An independent report by Regeneris Consulting said Phase 1 alone had contributed £36m to the local economy, which, it said, could grow as high as £220m in the next two years.

RURAL BROADBAND: REAL LIVES, REAL PROBLEMS

Who? Sue Burrell

Owner, Millgate B&B, Masham, winner TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Award 2015, Sunday Times Ultimate 100 British Hotels 2015 - Top 10 B&B’s.

Background

Formerly a fire control operator, business development trainer, adult education tutor, mental health worker, child protection officer and barkeeper Sue now runs stone-built Millgate B&B in Masham with her husband Andrew, a qualified chef and former pub manager.

Then

All my bookings are on-line and so I rely on speedy internet connections. When we won our TripAdvisor award in January for the first couple of days, bookings were coming in on-line at four a minute but it took me weeks to respond to enquiries.

We had 1547 email enquiries on the first day alone but I struggled because of the slow speeds typically 3 to 4 MB/s.

I often worked into the night and early every morning to clear the backlog.

“Every email took an age to load and send.”

Now

In June of this year I was invited to open the BT’s 1000th superfast North Yorkshire cabinet in Masham.

Since we were connected to Superfast Broadband by BT we haven’t looked back.

I can even work now at the same time as my guests when they are using the internet in their rooms.

I still get 55 - 42 Mb/s enabling me to work efficiently and to respond to bookings and enquiries as they come in.

As a B&B we are also rated by guests for our broadband provision and now we do not lose any marks on ratings from guests.”