Award-winning scheme supporting residents and businesses by boosting broadband speeds

Communities / Wed 9th Aug 2023 at 07:16am

SINCE 2012, Essex County Council’s Superfast Essex programme has connected more than 160,000 homes and businesses to superfast broadband speeds, including those in some of the hardest to reach locations in the county.

Of those addresses, nearly 30,000 have been connected to gigabit-capable broadband. This is the fastest connection available in the UK, offering speeds up to 1,000Mbps, or 1Gbps.

Superfast Essex was initially a £24.6 million programme funded by the council, the Government’s Building Digital UK (BDUK) programme, and commercial partner Openreach.

After the success of the first phase of work, the programme went on to attract investment from local authorities, the government, and other partners. This has boosted broadband connections to more addresses than first planned through 13 contracts of work.

The programme’s final contract, Phase 4b, is set to complete in August. Phase 4b will reach 3,453businesses and homes in some of the most rural, hard-to-reach locations across Essex. 

Without intervention from Superfast Essex, these are addresses which would not have been included in a broadband rollout.

The upgrade included Oak Business Park in Beaumont, Tendring, where Iain Greenwood’s IT company, Micrologic, is based. 

The park is set in a rural landscape, so remote that businesses share the grounds with peacocks.

Before Superfast Essex’s rollout, limited connectivity caused problems for various teams and reduced the park’s appeal.

“Trying to run all of our systems with 3Mbps was absolutely dire – the connection would just grind to a halt,” Iain said.

Since the upgrade, Oak Business Park has welcomed more businesses on site and is even planning to expand. 

“This wouldn’t have been possible without fibre broadband,” Iain said. 

“We’ve gone from 3Mbps on a good day to 80Mbps being the minimum speed we receive – it’s been transformational.”

Now the council is setting its sights on making sure every resident and business address has access to a superfast broadband connection by 2025. 

A £1.88 million programme to support digital connectivity and tackle digital exclusion is set to help bring gigabit broadband to rural areas.  

Alongside this, the council and its partners are seeking to secure a Devolution Deal for Greater Essex. This would give the council more funding and the opportunity to influence investment in digital connectivity across the county.

Currently, BDUK’s £5bn Project Gigabit programme has been paused in Essex due to a high amount of commercial (non-state funded) work planned for the county. 

Alternative options such as the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme (GBVS) will help to connect more rural addresses, in line with the government’s national targets to achieve 85 percent gigabit coverage. 

The devolution of current broadband subsidy to local government would support a place-based approach to the funding of digital connectivity programmes, responding to demand and focusing on opportunities for economic growth at a local level.

Targets within national programmes also do not address inequalities in broadband connectivity seen in Essex’s Levelling Up areas. 

Across these six priority areas, lack of access to superfast broadband speeds is considerably higher than the Greater Essex average of 2 percent.

Councillor Tom Cunningham, Essex County Council’s Cabinet Member for Planning a Growing Economy, said: “Driving forward programmes which give residents and businesses access to better digital connections is vital for the future of Essex’s economy.

“Securing a Devolution Deal for Greater Essex could be key to our success, allowing us to focus on where broadband and mobile connectivity is needed most, ensure residents and businesses aren’t left behind, and explore opportunities for economic growth at a local level.”

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