Posted: 10.09.21 at 14:19 by Richard Price - Local Democracy Reporter
A major fibre optic build programme is set to get underway in a number of towns across Staffordshire – years ahead of its expected arrival.
Full Fibre Ltd is working with Staffordshire County Council’s Superfast Staffordshire project, and says communities across the county will benefit from its latest build plans.
The company announced that 119,000 homes and businesses in poorly-served areas of the UK will be able to access its supercharged connectivity, with more than 24,000 of those situated in Staffordshire.
The plans have been welcomed by Cllr Charlotte Atkins (Lab) who represents Leek South on the county council and is the opposition leader.
However, Cllr Atkins called for more to be done to support those who can’t afford broadband in the first place, to ensure fair access to all who might benefit from the scheme.
She said: “We’re all in favour of faster broadband but could the county council tell us how many households are not connected at all – or indeed can’t afford to be connected?
“The cheapest broadband costs around £15 per month, but for people who are relying on food banks, that £15 is pretty critical – particularly if you’re also reliant on things like Universal Credit which of course is going to be cut soon.”
Cllr Atkins added: “We certainly do need faster broadband in the Moorlands.
“For areas like Biddulph, Leek and Cheadle it’s been a real concern because connectivity is now an essential service like electricity and gas.
“What worries me is affordability. What about those people who are excluded because they can’t afford it?”
There is consensus across the political divide on the importance of providing access to high speed broadband.
A recent government science report recommended that the prime minister should consider designating broadband as an essential utility.
Full Fibre Ltd is promising every single property in the towns where it offer its services the ability to connect to an ultrafast network.
Its current rollout plans include installation in Leek, Cheadle, Upper Tean and Uttoxeter.
The company added that it is actively considering further investment in the county.
Full Fibre Ltd also says its initiative is helping to address the ‘digital divide’ between urban and rural areas.
Cllr Atkins commented: “Places like the Moorlands are a classic example of this.
“My sister – who is a councillor in London – often asks her constituents to email her things.
“I can’t necessarily say that to my constituents because, for some of them, they won’t be able to.
“The fact is that many people in rural areas are not connected.
“There has to be much more of a push to connect people and provide the skills people need to grasp the opportunities broadband gives them.”
Staffordshire County Council’s cabinet member for environment, infrastructure and climate change Cllr Simon Tagg (Con) said: “Ultrafast broadband connection to residents and businesses is crucial for our communities to ensure they have the same opportunities as the rest of the country.
“Our Superfast Staffordshire programme has been a huge success and enabled most people in the county to get connected to faster broadband speeds and full fibre connection is another big step forward.
“We will continue to work with partners like Full Fibre Ltd to extend connection reach to more areas as soon as possible.”
The pandemic has brought about rising expectations from consumers.
Demands for activities such as increased homeworking and video streaming mean people are more dependent on fast, reliable connectivity than ever.
Full Fibre CEO Oliver Helm said: “We are delighted to be announcing the extension of our network into Staffordshire, covering even more hard to reach locations that have previously been neglected by other providers.
“These chosen areas are ones that have been previously left behind and rely on ageing copper connections, that do not meet the needs of modern, homeworking families.”
Cllr Atkins added that while she was no great fan of Jeremy Corbyn, she did think there was merit in his free broadband policy.
She believes this could offer a lifeline for some families in Staffordshire, and ensure they’re not left behind when the benefits faster broadband brings are enjoyed.
“If you can’t afford £15 per month – particularly if there are children in the house, and it’s a vital tool for them to be able to do their homework – then help with accessing broadband is vital.
“And if we’re looking at policies for catch-up, this kind of thing is needed now, not in a year or two.
“Given the education gap, I think offering free broadband to people who have family needs needs to be considered.”
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