rural communities deserve fast broadband

Article first published in Farmers Weekly on 15th October 2010

Modern communities that are key to the prosperity of our countryside

I am often asked about my focus in Parliament and when I say ‘broadband’, people’s faces fall. The reactions I get imply that they had expected a conversation about high politics but are getting electrics and plumbing. However, the world is relying more and more on broadband and yet, broadband is concentrated in cities. It is becoming increasingly difficult to run a business without broadband. DEFRA is putting more and more of its forms online. New dairies face problems if they lose broadband access. B and Bs need to advertise on the internet. In my constituency of Penrith and the Border there are more self-employed people and micro-businesses than any other part of Britain. If we don’t get broadband our economy will be at risk.

Throughout rural communities, post offices and clinics are closing. We need to travel ever further, and bus services and roads are poor. Fast broadband would help these things. Patients could, for example, see a skin specialist in Kent down a broadband video link without ever leaving home. District nurses and GPs could stay in more regular touch with outlying villages. Children unable to stay for after-school activities could learn online. Broadband allows young families to live and work in villages, thus halting rural depopulation and keeping communities alive. It has become almost a fourth utility, like water or electricity: it is increasingly difficult to sell a home without broadband; schoolchildren are expected to do homework online: grandmothers rely on the resource to skype their grandchildren in New Zealand. These things depend on broadband, and are almost impossible for most rural communities.

This is why, in my constituency, I am determined that we get broadband for everyone, and fast broadband for the majority of constituents, by the end of 2012. Until very recently this would have been technically and financially unimaginable. Two months ago, we were being quoted 43 million pounds and told it would take five years. But today – although it’s never going to be easy – it looks like we will be working our way to a solution. Last week I was discussing a village in a remote valley in Yorkshire which has been connected by a wi-fi hub and then a microwave beam to fibre in a school, twelve miles away. The day before, BT offered to install infrastructure at a fraction of what we predicted. We have also been given the support of a very energetic group of civil servants. Things are, it seems, coming together.

But the most fulfilling part is working with communities. It is communities who will make it possible. Government and an MP can help by bringing in fibre cables, opening them up for public access, and encouraging investment. But in the end, particularly in the most remote areas, it will be down to communities to connect to their homes. Every day, I am engaging with discussion about light-waves, business models, and new uses of the internet. Every day is bringing me into contact with another Cumbrian community showing astonishing energy and determination. That is why when asked what I am focused on, I reply with a big grin: “Broadband’.

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