THE first areas targeted for a £5 billion broadband upgrade have been revealed, with work to start in 2022 and the North-East to benefit.
As many as 510,000 homes and businesses long plagued by sluggish broadband will be front of the queue, as part of the Government’s Project Gigabit scheme.
These include Durham, the Tees Valley, South Tyneside and Northumberland.
Firms will be able to bid for contracts on the project from spring, with “spades in the ground” in the first half of 2022, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said.
One gigabit is the equivalent of 1,000 megabits, capable of downloading a high definition film in under a minute.
Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said: “We have all had to adapt to an increasingly online world in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but there are still thousands of people across Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool who don’t have access to the internet speeds they need to keep their businesses going, take part in online learning, keep connected with friends and family or access digital services that others take for granted.
“This much-needed boost will make sure no one is left behind as we continue to stay connected and take advantage of the new opportunities of increased digitisation.
“More than that, it will help some of our key sectors central to my plan for jobs – such as the creative industries – go above and beyond in playing a part in our economy, growing and creating the jobs of the future.”
Mark Wilkes, Liberal Democrat councillor for Framwellgate & Newton Hall in County Durham, said: “I’ve been involved working on this locally with the council for over a year now, and we are absolutely delighted that the Newton Hall, PIty Me and Framwellgate Moor area is being rolled out right now with some residents getting fibre to the house very soon.
“It may be surprising but just a mile or so from Durham City, many of our residents have struggled with broadband speeds as low as 2mb for years.
“This is going to make a really big difference to many people who have contacted us complaining they can’t work from home, including residents whose jobs are critical.”
Other areas to benefit include Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Dorset and Essex.
Plans for six more locations – Norfolk, Shropshire, Suffolk, Worcestershire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight – are set to follow in June, covering a further 640,000 premises.
It comes after the Government had to row back on its election pledge of providing the UK with full-fibre broadband by 2025, instead aiming for at least 85 per cent.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Project Gigabit is the rocket boost that we need to get lightning-fast broadband to all areas of the country.
“This broadband revolution will fire up people’s businesses and homes, and the vital public services that we all rely on, so we can continue to level up and build back better from this pandemic.”
In addition, £210 million worth of vouchers will be available once again from April 8, allowing eligible residents to ask for up to £1,500 and businesses £3,500 towards the cost of installing gigabit-capable broadband.
Some £110 million has been set aside to support GP surgeries, libraries and schools, while the Government also explores how satellite and 5G technology could be used to connect very hard to reach spots, starting with a call for evidence.
The development comes after regulator Ofcom announced that it will not impose price caps on full-fibre connections provided by firms, as part of new rules.
Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “Project Gigabit is our national mission to plug in and power up every corner of the UK and get us gigafit for the future.”
Business leaders in the region have also been quick to welcome the announcement.
CBI, which speaks on behalf of 190,000 businesses of all sizes and sectors across the country, says improvements in connectivity will help the region’s businesses.
Sarah Glendinning, North East Director, said: “Changes to the way we live, work and shop over the past year have highlighted the vital role which digital connectivity plays in modern life.
“However, upgrades to the speed, reliability and consistency of digital connectivity have long been viewed as priorities by businesses in the North-East. Improvements can help embed new hybrid working patterns, unlock doors to new talent and reduce travel.
“Business looks forward to a rapid and successful rollout of Project Gigabit and welcomes the transformational impact it can have on communities in Durham, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Tees Valley.”
Christine Gilbert, a director of the Stockton-based telecommunications experts Odyssey Systems, said the rollout will further strengthen the move towards increased home working.
Ms Gilbert said: “This announcement on the rollout of gigabit-speed broadband in the North East is excellent news not only for householders but those many businesses whose staff are continuing to work from home during the pandemic.
“Many businesses and organisations now recognise the many benefits of remote working, in terms of lower costs, improved work-life balance, and a fall in congestion and pollution with employees no longer having to commute.”