Council wants to spend £13m to upgrade broadband service

9:00am Wednesday 5th December 2012

By Freddie Whittaker

THE county council wants to spend more than £13m to drag Oxfordshire’s broadband internet service into the 21st century.

Taxpayers’ money would be used to subsidise a private company to come into the county to increase some speeds more than tenfold.

The authority wants to provide at least 90 per cent of households and businesses with a minimum speed of 24 megabits per second (mbps) by 2015, and a minimum of 2mbps in the other 10 per cent.

The UK’s average broadband speed is 9mbps, but only eight per cent have “super fast” broadband speeds of 30mbps or higher.

Oxfordshire’s current average broadband speed is 12mbps, so the council’s plans would double that. Ten percent of the county currently has less than 2mbps though.

With a slowest speed of 2mbps, it would take more than four and a half hours to download a 4GB high definition film, while a 50mb music album would take roughly three minutes and 30 seconds.

Upgrading to 24mbps would mean downloading the HD film in around 20 minutes, and the album in around 20 seconds.

But county councillors have voiced their frustration ahead of the planned investment broadband, to plug “gaps” in coverage left by commercial providers.

The council wants to add £10m from its coffers to £3.7m from the Government.

That £13.7m would not be enough on its own to fund such large scale improvement.

It is intended as a “sweetener” to attract a private contractor to encourage them to invest in the area, with tenders invited in the new year. Broadband providers will decide what equipment and methods to use and councillors will pick their preferred option.

But cabinet member for communications Nick Carter said he was annoyed the money had to be spent at all.

He said: “It’s ridiculous that public money is having to put right what the market should have sorted out years ago.”

He said broadband needed to be viewed as an “essential utility” like water or gas, and said the council had to act where private companies had failed.

Conservative councillor Caroline Newton, who represents the rural division of Watlington, said she had been lobbied hard by small business owners and residents.

She said: “This is probably the one matter I get the most correspondence about, more than any other issue.

“People in the villages are very concerned they won’t be within the 90 per cent who benefit from this, so they are looking at other options with the rest of the community.”

Carterton Conservative councillor Peter Handley has contested officers’ claims the increased speeds would create 1,500 jobs because businesses will grow as a result of the higher speeds.

He said: “To forecast that all these people will get jobs is totally pie-in-the-sky.

“At the end of the day it’s a failure by companies like BT, and we shouldn’t be using public funds to make an awful lot of money.

But BT, one of a number of commercial operators in discussion with the council to take on the contract, contested claims it had failed people in rural Oxfordshire.

Spokesman Emma Littlejohn said: “BT is doing more than anyone else to bring faster broadband to homes and businesses across the UK. It’s a massive engineering task and more than 170,000 Oxfordshire homes and businesses are included in our fibre deployment plans.

“BT is certainly being brave and taking risks.”

She said more than 55 per cent of premises in Oxfordshire now have access to BT’s fibre network and this is expected to reach 64 per cent by the spring.

She added: “Deddington, a small rural Oxfordshire village, is the UK’s first fibre only exchange pilot.

“This exciting and innovative project will see every home and business in Deddington connected to fibre optic cables capable of delivering ultrafast broadband speeds of up to 300mbps.”

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