Cambridgeshire ‘miles ahead of everyone’ on superfast broadband says Matt Hancock - and there’s £10m more to invest

PUBLISHED: 14:58 10 November 2017 | UPDATED: 00:19 11 November 2017

Minister for Digital MP Matt Hancock at the Connected Futures Conference, at The Bradfield Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell

Minister for Digital MP Matt Hancock at the Connected Futures Conference, at The Bradfield Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell

Iliffe Media Ltd

Superfast broadband is now available in 95 per cent of county, delegates heard at the Connected Futures Conference.

Speaskers and organisers at the Connected Futures Conference, at The Bradfield Centre, 184, Cambridge Science Park, November 3, 2017.  Picture: Keith HeppellSpeaskers and organisers at the Connected Futures Conference, at The Bradfield Centre, 184, Cambridge Science Park, November 3, 2017. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cambridgeshire can boast the most successful digital rollout in the UK, with superfast broadband now available in 95 per cent of Cambridgeshire.

It has been so well adopted by the community that half of the £20million of county taxpayers’ money used for the project was returned for reinvestment.

“You’re miles ahead of everyone else,” minister for digital Matt Hancock told the Connected Futures Conference at Cambridge Science Park on Friday (November 3), “and with the £10million clawback there’s more to come.”

Referring to a fellow Tory, Cllr Steve Count, the leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, he added: “That’s a tribute to Steve and it’s been a real front-foot effort.

Fibre-optic broadband is the crucial next step for the long-suffering digital community in the UK.Fibre-optic broadband is the crucial next step for the long-suffering digital community in the UK.

“From my desk in Whitehall looking out across the whole of the country I’d like to thank you, Cambridgeshire County Council and Connecting Cambridgeshire, for getting this done.

“Cambridge is a global leader as well as a national leader, as Arm shows, and it’s so exciting what’s happening in Cambridgeshire, it’s almost as good as Suffolk....”

When the laughter at the West Suffolk MP’s quip died down in the Bradfield Centre’s auditorium the audience heard about the challenges as the county aims for 99 per cent coverage by 2020.

“In announcing the 95 per cent milestone we’re not taking away from the fact that if you’re in the five per cent, it’s frustrating. My job is to make sure the connectivity of Britain is in play not just for today but for tomorrow too.”

Cambridgeshire County Council Leader Councillor Steve Count  at the Bradfield Centre, November 3, 2017. Picture: Keith HeppellCambridgeshire County Council Leader Councillor Steve Count at the Bradfield Centre, November 3, 2017. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Count said that rail is also being looked at – “to be online on a train all the time” – along with the infrastructure requirements for the driverless era. “The future is autonomous vehicles. The car will be my office but we will only achieve that if we have 
connectivity during the whole of the route and that’s what we’re looking to achieve.”

Steve Haines, BT managing director for Next Generation Access, said: “We’re still the leading digital infrastructure by any metrics you use – we do lead the way. This project was delivered on time, and how many times do you see money coming back? It’s a great programme.”

Mr Haines also outlined BT’s ambitions for the UK:

■ Two million premises – homes and offices – should be ‘full fibre’ by 2020. Full-fibre is fibre-optic technology that provides data at speeds of up to one gigabyte per second; and

■ Ultra-fast fibre G.fast, which can deliver at speeds of up to 330Mbps (megabytes per second), should be in 10 million premises by 2020.

Mr Haines’ remark that connectivity speeds of up to 1,000 gigabytes per second could soon be possible gives some idea of how fast the speed of progress is in this sector. But the reality today is not always rosy. The average UK broadband speed is currently 16.5Mbps, meaning 17 other EU countries have faster broadband speeds, according to a recent report. Although prices in many other territories are up to twice those in the UK, the report by M-Lab published in August found Singapore to have the fastest average broadband speeds (55Mbps), with the fastest European speeds being in Denmark and the Netherlands (both 33.5Mbps).

Dr Matt Yardley, a partner at Analysys Mason, said that problems in the UK customers include 17 per of mobile not-spots around the country, only 40 per cent of the rail network’s track being covered, and 47 per cent of the country having no 4G coverage. However Dr Yardley was enthusiastic about “government backing for an early push into 5G”, adding that “the first wave of investment is up for grabs via the Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund”. 5G aims for higher capacity but the protocol hasn’t yet been signed off globally.

Dr Yardley said: “The UK’s digital economy is growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy so it’s crucial to prepare for the future.”

Cambridge serial entrepreneur and investor David Cleevely concluded the morning, congratulating the council for “recognising that if you double demand in an area you halve the costs of supply”.

The afternoon session of Connected Futures heard about the varying, sometimes conflicting, requirements of various actors in the digitisation programme. Speakers from the university, Bridge Fibre, BT, Virgin Media and Vodafone shared perspectives. All agreed that digging the roads up to lay new fibre-optic cables is tedious work and has to be done, but it should be done in association with utility firms so there is no duplication.

On other issues, clarity is elusive. For instance, no one knows what effect mobile internet technology will have. Replacing all the copper wiring with fibre-optic cabling will be expensive. Should BT or Vodafone be obliged to make every part of the UK digitally accessible, even if there is no return for them? And why are companies like Netflix allowed to make fortunes using a network they pay nothing to develop or maintain?

As ever, the market is being led by the technology, but there’s no doubting that connectivity is an issue in which progress is being made – and there’s lots more to come.

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