English councils get deadline for broadband plan cash

Internet cable Countryside campaigners have complained that the broadband projects are taking too long to deliver

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English councils wanting to roll out high-speed internet links have been given until February to apply for government cash.

£530m has been set aside to push "superfast" broadband to the UK's countryside by the end of 2015.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom has defined "superfast" broadband as speeds greater than 24Mbps.

Countryside campaigners said the deadline would add momentum to the rollout.

The government scheme is designed to help telecoms companies provide broadband in areas they might otherwise claim it would not be economically viable to be offered.

The government wants 90% of homes and businesses to have access to "superfast" broadband by 2015.

In addition to the high-speed target, the government also wants everyone to be offered at least two megabit per second (Mbps) speeds.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already been given their share of the money which was set aside from the TV licence fee.

England's local authorities can apply for money on condition they provide matching funds. This cash can be sourced from their own budgets, European programmes and other sources.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced in August how much each area could expect to receive.

They have until the end of February to submit a draft plan, and until the end of April to negotiate the full details of the scheme with central government officials.

The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was confident the authorities would meet the new timetable.

"Superfast broadband is fundamental to our future economic success," he said.

"Some local authorities will find these to be challenging targets... [but it] is simply too important for creating the growth we need to allow the rollout to be delayed."

A further £300m is due to be available after 2015.

'Slow work'

Campaign group, the Countryside Alliance, described the news as a welcome development.

Last Friday it used Freedom of Information requests to reveal that four areas named more than a year ago as pilots for superfast rural broadband had yet to start work on their projects.

"As we saw last week, councils have been struggling to get their broadband projects moving," said the group's chief executive, Alice Bernard.

"It is now up to the government to make sure that any further barriers to progress on implementing these schemes are removed, so that rural communities can finally get fast and reliable connections and start to bridge Britain's digital divide."

Companies including BT, Cable & Wireless and Fujitsu have already submitted bids to build networks in various areas.

However, there have been complaints that in many cases the sums being offered are still too small and the process to obtain the money is slow and complicated.

Campaigners have also questioned whether council officials involved have the technical expertise to make the right judgements.

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