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How New Forest communities stuck in internet slow lane can fight for faster broadband

Some rural areas are capable of only 2Mbps broadband speeds
Some rural areas are capable of only 2Mbps broadband speeds

NEARLY 4,000 homes in the New Forest still lack superfast broadband connections – and may not get better connectivity unless property owners apply for a special £1m upgrade fund.

While the figure equates to around 5% of the 80,000 homes in the district and exceeds Hampshire County Council’s aspirations, there are fears that if the homes are not awarded some of the fund they will have to put up with their current systems for a further 18 months.

In total 3,809 have sub-superfast broadband speeds and 677 are positively pedestrian in below 2Mbps, which restricts users to basic web surfing and email. Music streaming requires a minimum speed of around 3Mbps and BBC suggest a minimum of 5Mbps for iPlayer.

As part of phase two of its £18m internet connectivity roll-out project which started in 2012 the county council wanted to get 95% of Hampshire homes up to superfast level; it has achieved that for 96% but a contract it has with the government ends later this year.

Another government scheme is expected to start in 2022 to have full coverage of the UK by 2025, but it is unclear what funding, if any, HCC will get between the contracts.

In a presentation to New Forest District Council’s corporate overview and scrutiny panel Glen Peacey, Hampshire County Council’s lead on the project to roll-out superfast broadband, highlighted HCC has made available £1m for homeowners in need of an upgrade.

The funding is a top up of the government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher scheme and enables groups of people living in rural areas to apply for up to £3,000 worth of help towards the purchase of equipment. Individuals can ask for up to £1,500 worth of help.

Gigabit-capable broadband has speeds of up to 1,000Mbps or 1Gbps. To qualify for the scheme, residents must live in a rural area, be unable to get broadband speeds of 100Mbps or more and apply as a group of two or more premises.

He said bids for the money can be made by parish councils in affected areas and urged members to get the word out so they could try to get help.

“[HCC’s] programme was only funded to reach 95% across the country, and we’ve got to 96%,” Mr Peacey said. “The question is what can we do to help people in the county we are still not able to reach?” he added – pointing to the HCC fund as a positive option.

The scheme has also been endorsed by HCC’s cabinet member for commercial strategy, human resources and performance, Cllr Stephen Reid.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how important it is to have access to reliable, fast broadband, as being digitally connected is key to staying in touch with loved ones, working from home, and helping to stabilise local businesses,” he said.

“This initiative is designed to get high-speed broadband to areas that commercial providers simply won’t go to because of the costs involved.”

Digital Infrastructure minister Matt Warman added: “As part of our plans to level up communities across the UK, we’re prioritising bringing the economic and social benefits of gigabit-capable broadband to rural areas.

“I encourage people and businesses in these areas to check if they’re eligible for a voucher to boost their broadband with these next-generation speeds.”

Mr Peacey added that in the future towns such as Lymington and Brockenhurst will get 5G as it is rolled out; however, some of the more rural areas may never get it.

He said 4G would continue to roll out in the Forest but there were difficulties with it since it required more aerials than 5G, which were “difficult” to site.

The members were told while most houses get superfast speeds residents in rural areas, particularly within the national park, suffer. That was partly because of restrictions on land that stops the building of things – such as roadside cabinets – that would aid connectivity and speeds.

He was pressed by NFDC cabinet member Cllr Michael Harris on how to “sweep away objections” by opponents of such developments.

Mr Peacey suggested allowing such projects, if they are proposed by an internet provider, under permitted development rights.

But he also noted many opposition organisations were trying to “protect the environments we are familiar with and grateful for”, and it was a “juggling act”.

The council’s head of planning, Claire Upton-Brown highlighted the Local Plan – which could result in more than 10,000 new homes coming into the district – and stressed it made provisions for those future properties to include internet access and 4G or 5G.

Information on the funding help scheme, which will be distributed to people on a first come first serve basis, is available at www.hampshiresuperfastbroadband.com/top-up/

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