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Concerns over Norfolk broadband

PUBLISHED: 08:44 23 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:42 03 July 2010

Policymakers were last night accused of a lack of ambition after a conference heard government targets on broadband speed were unlikely to be met in Norfolk.

Policymakers were last night accused of a lack of ambition after a conference heard government targets on broadband speed were unlikely to be met in Norfolk.

The government wants universal broadband coverage at a minimum of 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) ­ - just fast enough to watch streamed video such as BBC iPlayer and YouTube - by 2012.

Yet even though that target is regarded by many experts as too low, a senior BT executive yesterday admitted it was unlikely to be hit in Norfolk.

Peter McCarthy-Ward, East of England director for BT, told an audience in Norwich that it could take five years for broadband connections in some parts of Norfolk to reach that speed, and even that would be dependent on funding from the government and other sources.

Addressing the conference of Shaping Norfolk's Future (SNF), the county's economic develop-ment partnership, he said: “I think there's a very good possibility of getting 2Mbps minimum across 100pc of Norfolk in three to five years, if we are imaginative in how we seek funding and if companies like BT are willing to work with organisations like yourselves.”

Government initiatives to improve broadband coverage and connection speeds include a 50p levy on all fixed phone lines from 2010, expected to raise £150m to £170m a year. Money will also be available from the European Regional Development Fund.

But Mr McCarthy-Ward told the conference: “None of those funds is enough to bridge the gap.”

He said BT would spend £1.5bn over the next two to three years building faster broadband links to 10 million homes across the UK, and would bid for state funding, but said businesses, councils and other organisations would need to work with the industry to build a strong case for investment in broadband.

Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, said: “It smacks of a collective failure of ambition by all those responsible.

“We're at the point where the 2Mpbs figure is not seen as adequate now, let alone in three to five years' time. There's a great danger rural Norfolk will get left behind the rest of the country and that the UK will get left behind other countries that are setting more ambitious targets.

“I recognise that BT is a comm-ercial organisation and it may well have to be a case of partnerships. We need to be more ambitious if we are to keep ahead of the game.”

Chloe Smith, Conservative MP for Norwich North, said: “I welcome everybody's efforts to work together, but we need to go further and faster. If even the fag-end of a government can promise 2Mbps virtually everywhere by 2012, I see no reason for Norfolk to be left out of that and to have to straggle forward to 2014.”

Chris Starkie, chief executive of SNF, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by Mr McCarthy-Ward's prediction.

“What we're pleased about is that BT are saying they are prepared to develop a vision for broadband in Norfolk,” he said.

“We believe we need to be ambitious about broadband for Norfolk. The government's minimum of 2Mbps is, in our view, far too low a target. If you are a business, 2Mbps is broadband-lite.

“We'd like to see a minimum of 10Mbps across Norfolk in urban and rural areas, and faster where possible. We'll be working to achieve this as soon as possible.

“No one should be under any illusion about the challenge of the task. That's why we're going to explore any and every funding opportunity that we can identify. It's going to be costly to do it, but we think, with support of our regional partners and others, there is a way.”

Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said: “We have to make sure the 2Mbps does happen, and quicker than in three to five years.

“But that's not where we want to stop. We want to look at other solutions. They won't necessarily come from BT; it is only one of the partners we need to work with.”

She said the chamber would be working with members to understand exactly what they needed from broadband.

“It will be easier for businesses to participate if they talk about what they want to use broadband for, rather than Mbps. The industry itself needs to simplify its message so the wider community understands what's available.”

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