East Anglia misses out on latest Broadband roll-out

Sam WilliamsEast Anglia has once again been left out in BT's roll out of superfast broadband - in a move which could leave the region's economy lagging behind the rest of the country.Sam Williams

East Anglia has once again been left out in BT's roll out of superfast broadband - in a move which could leave the region's economy lagging behind the rest of the country.

Business and council leaders reacted with disbelief after the company named 63 telephone exchanges set for upgrade to offer broadband speeds of up to 40 megabits per second (Mbps) this summer - none of which were in Norfolk or Suffolk.

The announcement was the third wave in the expansion of superfast broadband to miss out Norfolk, which has led to criticism of BT's selection criteria.

It comes less than four months after BT East of England director Peter McCarthy-Ward promised improvements to broadband speeds in Norfolk, saying the county would 'soon see the benefits'.

Eleven of the exchanges set for overhaul are in London and 20 in the South East, but the nearest to Norfolk is Braintree, Essex - 65 miles from Norwich - followed by Harpenden in Hertfordshire, and the Ortons, Peterborough - all of which are too far away to benefit the county.

While further waves of telephone exchange upgrades are expected by 2012, BT was unable to confirm whether the roll out would reach the county within that period.

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As well as home users - who will have to wait longer for faster web speeds and improved video, gaming and interactive services - the news comes as a blow to business, with faster broadband speeds highlighted as a vital step to economic growth.

Ann Steward, cabinet member for economic development at Norfolk County Council, said she was 'incredulous' that in three announcements and planned upgrades to 160 telephone exchanges, not one was in the county.

She said: 'There are some extremely large and important business clusters and centres of population in Norwich and elsewhere in the county that are desperate for better broadband and it is a key reason why Norfolk's economy lags behind.

'I am very surprised at some of the locations that have been included and it really does cause me to question the validity of the selection process.'

And business leaders said slower broadband speeds would jeopardise job creation and investment in the region.

Phil Harris, managing director of Norwich IT company Norcom Technology, and technology spokesman for Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said: 'If companies find it difficult to transfer data in Norfolk, they are less likely to locate to this area and companies that are here may find they can operate better elsewhere.

'It's like being left on a single carriageway when elsewhere they have motorways. When the speed of broadband increases, new services will start making use of that greater speed and if we haven't got fast broadband, we will not get any of those new services.'

Peter Davis, chairman of technology firm Breakwater IT, also in Norwich, said fast broadband speeds would become even more important as technology, such as remote and home working and video conferencing, developed.

He said: 'Over the next five years, technology is going to change hugely. If we are not careful, the danger is Norfolk will be left constantly playing catch-up.'

But Mr McCarthy-Ward said BT was only a quarter of the way through its superfast broadband roll out, which will be offered to 10 million homes by 2012, and said Norfolk and Suffolk could still benefit in later announcements.

However, he said it was uncertain which areas would benefit when and big urban areas with high numbers of potential customers were likely to be included before smaller centres and rural areas.

He said the decision about which exchanges to upgrade was down not just to BT's broadband arm Openreach, but also all other telecoms companies that will use the network.

He said: 'Where [telecoms companies] are most confident they will be able to create most demand is where the first improved telephone exchanges will be built, so naturally that will be in areas of greatest population density, like London.

'But as confidence builds that will be rolled out progressively to more rural areas.'

While he could offer no guarantee, Mr McCarthy-Ward said he was 'lobbying like fury' to get Norfolk and Suffolk included in later upgrades, adding: 'I have every confidence we will see superfast broadband in the area before too long.'

Chloe Smith, MP for Norwich North, said she was 'very saddened' at the announcement, adding: 'If BT is serious about providing us with a proper broadband service, which we need like any other infrastructure like road and rail links to allow us to get on with our jobs, then we need the company to come forward and make good on its promises.'

Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said the decision was 'disappointing' but she would 'continue to lobby other service providers to enable local businesses in Norfolk to compete on a level playing field in an e-commerce environment.'

Chris Starkie, chief executive of economic development partnership Shaping Norfolk's Future, which has campaigned for faster broadband speeds in the county, said: 'We will be contacting BT to try to get to the bottom of this baffling decision.'

Nick Daubney, leader of West Norfolk Council, which has backed a campaign for higher broadband speeds, called Faster Future, added: 'There is demand for superfast broadband in rural areas and King's Lynn and we are looking to BT to service that demand.'

In a survey last November, Norwich was found to have one of the slowest broadband speeds among UK cities with an average of 3.6Mbps, compared to top placed Bournemouth with 8Mbps.

But rural parts of the county have far slower speeds, and BT's Mr McCarthy-Ward said it could be five years or longer before more isolated areas enjoy speeds of just 2Mbps.