Broadband battle plan

THE battle for better broadband in East Anglia will step up a gear today when councils from across the region join forces for a special summit aimed at finding ways to unlock millions of pounds of funding to help woo broadband providers.

THE battle for better broadband in East Anglia will step up a gear today when councils from across the region join forces for a special summit aimed at finding ways to unlock millions of pounds of funding to help woo broadband providers.

More than 25 councils have been invited to the conference in the hope that working together will convince telecoms companies that investing in East Anglia would reap dividends.

The East of England Next Generation Broadband Summit, which will take place at Newmarket Racecourse, has been organised by the East of England Development Agency (Eeda) because of fears the current provision of broadband in Norfolk and surrounding counties is not good enough to allow cities, towns and communities to fulfil their potential.

Bosses of the development agency are hoping to follow the example of what has happened in South Yorkshire, where Eeda's equivalent Yorkshire Forward worked with local councils and unlocked European, regional, local and private investment of more than �90m, including �30m from the European Regional Development Fund.

Speakers from the Yorkshire project will be at today's summit and Eeda bosses said having all councils making the case for better broadband in East Anglia would send a strong message to the government.

Eeda are describing the summit as 'a landmark conference' and a spokesman said: 'There are examples from other areas across the UK which have found different ways to make sure there areas are serviced first.

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'A lot of it is about creating the demand and there are places such as Yorkshire, which have put in initiatives, which have been able to attract that demand.

'We are bringing local authorities from across the region together to sit down with the guys from Yorkshire so we can get a regional voice on this.'

Ann Steward, cabinet member for economic development at Norfolk County Council, said: 'All the councils are doing very good work, but I would hope that all of us coming together will help make a difference.

'Regional working will help tremendously because it really puts East Anglia on the map. It is vital for all businesses and individuals that we get better broadband.'

She added that at the end of last month, Eastern Region Conservative MEP Vicky Ford hosted an event at Aviva in Norwich, which Eeda had attended.

She said: 'From that we have got lots of information together and I think we felt there was not one solution for Norfolk, but several - and that will be feeding into the broadband working group we have set up on the county council.'

Chris Starkie, chief executive of Shaping Norfolk's Future - the county's economic development partnership - said: 'The idea of the event is to bring all councils and stakeholders together to say we need to work collaboratively to bid for European funding and other money available through the UK.

'Our attitude is that the regional dimension is important and the East of England needs to punch at its weight on this because other areas have punched above theirs.

'It's not the big solution, but it is an important part of the process of recognising that broadband is really important and we need to up our game to attract telecommunication providers here while looking at funding opportunities.

Mr Starkie added councils in Norfolk had been working more collaboratively and consultants working on behalf of three or four telecommunication providers were already interested in developing the businesses cases for projects in the region.

He pointed out that Norfolk had trialled the country's first Wi-Fi network with the OpenLink project run by Norfolk County Council.

That �1.35m two year trial, which was managed by Norfolk County Council, ended in 2008 but Mr Starkie said without that project a wireless broadband service to boost connection speeds in Norwich this summer would not be happening.

The new network, developed by engineering firm Babcock International, is aimed at offering faster broadband speeds to home and business users in virtually every part of the city via a chain of small rooftop antennas.

Last November it emerged Norwich had one of the worst average broadband speeds in UK, with an average of just 3.6 megabits per second (Mbps), embarrassingly slow in comparison to places such as Bournemouth (8Mbps) and Portsmouth (7.8Mbps).

Of 56 towns and cities listed in order of speed, Norwich sat in 51st spot, one place below Ipswich.

The same month 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 a speed of 2Mbps and even that would be dependent on funding from the government and other sources.

And when the latest list of exchanges to be upgraded by BT to superfast broadband was announced in January, the nearest to Norfolk was in Braintree, Essex - the third wave of superfast broadband expansion to miss the county.

Business and council leaders reacted with anger, with Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, making it one of the chamber's priorities to lobby service providers to allow the county's business to compete on a level playing field.

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