Racing for a place in the fast lane

A new round has begun in the fight to bring fast broadband to rural Norfolk and north Suffolk with a competition, launched by BT, giving communities the chance to show how desperately they want it.

The Race to Infinity pledges to upgrade the top five UK exchanges whose residents register the most desire, moving them up the waiting list for the much-needed service.

The internet provider has also promised to pay attention to any community which shows a high-level of demand and 'engage' with them in the hope of speeding things up in the future.

But to really make BT sit up and listen, the number of households and businesses registering their vote has to be huge - more than 75pc of the total number of homes and premises found in each exchange - and it is not looking great so far.

Narbourgh is currently in the top three exchanges in the country but, with just 372 votes out of a possible total of 1,868, falls short of both the minimum 1,000 votes needed to enter the competition and the 75pc required to attract the attention of BT bosses.

At lunchtime yesterday, just eight out of a total of 2,853, or 0.28pc, had voted in the Holt area since the race was launched at the beginning of this month.

A tiny 0.27pc, or 49 of a possible 18,431, on the Gorleston exchange had taken part, while 1.08pc, or 11 out of 1,016 potential voters, in Bunwell had registered.

Most Read

Last night MPs and campaigners called for people to grasp the opportunity to be heard, brave their painfully-slow dial-up connections, and get online to vote rather than let a chance to further the argument for decent broadband pass us by.

In the spending review announcements last week, Norfolk and Suffolk missed out on becoming one of the government's three pilot projects in a roll-out of high speed internet access in rural areas.

Norman Lamb, north Norfolk MP, said that was all the more reason to punch our weight in this competition.

'I would certainly encourage communities to participate in it and get actively involved in encouraging others to sign up,' he said. 'The need in Norfolk is great and it was disappointing we didn't get one of the pilots announced last week.

'It would be fatal to give up - we have to fight back.'

South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss has made campaigning for better internet access one of her priorities since winning the seat in May.

She said communities had to take every opportunity to plead their case and force those with the power to bring about change to act.

'Making your voice heard is very, very important - whether that's to BT or to the government,' she said.

And the MP said she was convinced the low number of votes received so far did not reflect a lack of concern or interest. She said: 'If half the public meetings I've been to are any indication, this issue is very important to Norfolk people.'

Norfolk's Rural Community Council believes a fast internet connection is vital to the county's progress both in terms of an individual's quality of life and the local economy.

Chief executive Jon Clemo said it did not matter how many times campaigners had fought for a better service in the past, the key was to keep trying.

'You have to keep raising the issue, raising awareness, until the problem is solved,' he said.

But Mr Clemo was cautious about pinning too many hopes on schemes like The Race to Infinity, which would always be tempered by the need for any move by BT to be commercially viable.

And there are already a number of draw-backs appearing.

The proportion of votes needed to force a response from BT instantly puts many of our rural communities at a disadvantage. Many have large elderly populations who will not use computers and therefore instantly reduce the number of potential votes cast.

Mr Lamb said: 'That doesn't in any way reduce the need for broadband for businesses - there is a very powerful case for getting comprehensive coverage irrespective of critical mass.'

And the area's smallest and most remote communities - arguably those most in need - will not be eligible for the competition side of the race. The five exchanges with the highest proportion of votes must have at least 1,000 premises in them to be counted.

Last night BT spokesman insisted those communities should still vote since any community could force BT to listen if enough households registered.

Caroline Williams, chief executive of the Norfolk chamber of commerce, said the competition element should not be the focus for voters, anyway.

She said: 'It would be great if Norfolk could win one of these prizes of a high speed exchange but what is more important is that Norfolk businesses keep up their pressure to ensure that Norfolk as a whole gets a high speed exchange.

'The A11 campaign shows what is possible so it is important that our needs and wants are clear to government. As a county with many small businesses, technology is key to ensuring the Norfolk economy is strengthened.'

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman added that, while he would encourage his constituents to vote and make their voices heard, he believed decent broadband should be a fundamental part of their county's basic infrastructure rather than something they had to 'bid' for.