Ceren Clulow of Nottinghamshire County Council, discusses the benefits for local authorities in optimising the uptake of superfast broadband in their region – including potential major rebates on initial infrastructure investments
Broadband connectivity is important to everyone from pre-schoolers to the elderly. It provides the means for accessing key public services, such as information on housing, benefits and local transport. It enables communication with friends and relatives all over the world, helping to tackle social inclusion and loneliness.
It underpins public services like schools and libraries, not only in terms of providing online information and advice, but also for everyday functions. It is essential for local businesses to compete on a national and international scale, and for organisations of all sizes to grow and develop.
In Nottinghamshire, a future-proofed digital network also plays a central role in our ambitions to grow the county’s £1.75bn visitor economy and is fundamental to making our area an attractive place for people to live and visit. It’s now an essential factor alongside other utilities when people look at investing in the housing market, for example.
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In Nottinghamshire there are 31,535 businesses and 817,851 residents, all of whom can benefit from improved connectivity. This is why Nottinghamshire County Council has invested more than £30mn in the rollout of superfast broadband connectivity across the entire county since 2012, through a combination of our own funding, central government funding and European Union initiatives. The county now boasts 97.8% superfast coverage, the highest coverage in the East Midlands and is positioned as the second most connected county in the UK.
However, this is still no small sum of money and any major investment in infrastructure of this kind can only be justified by its uptake.
To achieve the benefits associated with improved connectivity, the take-up of those services needs to be maximised; meaning that individuals and businesses alike need to be encouraged to sign up for superfast connectivity packages.
As well as ensuring a positive impact for businesses and residents there are also significant benefits for local authorities who make best use of uptake too.
Once more than a threshold percentage of premises in an area are signed up to superfast broadband services made possible because of public network subsidy – in our case this was 30% – a local authority receives income from the network provider, which in Nottinghamshire is Openreach.
This is known as ‘gainshare’ and protects the public purse from over-subsidising the provider. Once uptake passes the threshold, a share of the profits from income generated by internet service providers selling superfast broadband packages is distributed.
The greater the uptake, the more money passed to organisations like Openreach – and the more they, in turn, pass back to the local authorities who have funded the network infrastructure.
So far, Nottinghamshire has received £4.8m worth of gainshare since its initial investment began in 2012. This sharing of profits applies for a period of seven years after the contract end date too, representing a significant source of funding, all of which we have reinvested back into our county’s broadband infrastructure.
This means there are two incentives for local authorities to maximise the uptake of superfast broadband after rollout: firstly, the range of social and economic benefits and secondly, the tangible reinvestment opportunities of gainshare itself.
At Nottinghamshire County Council, we initially employed a range of standard community outreach methods which will be familiar to other councils. We sent out emails and letters giving details of the new service and often included letters and information in packs for children to take home from school for example. We also ran community engagement events and held meetings in villages and towns.
As we wanted to go further, we also enlisted the help of FarrPoint, a digital connectivity adviser with particular expertise in helping local authorities deliver broadband networks.
FarrPoint collected data from a range of sources, including ISPs, and produced an interactive mapping tool covering the entire Nottinghamshire County Council area. It enables individuals and businesses to identify whether superfast broadband is available – not just at postcode level but down to the level of individual premises.
“More than half of residents across Nottinghamshire are enjoying a huge array of practical and social benefits, and we as an authority have received a substantial chunk of our initial financial outlay back”
By creating such a detailed mapping tool, businesses and residents can now check availability specific to them and register their details on our website from which we can send them automated updates on the rollout out of broadband services, as well as reminders for them to sign up.
It has proved hugely effective. We have now achieved a broadband uptake rate of 60%, which places us in the top five local authorities in the country. It means that more than half of residents across Nottinghamshire are enjoying a huge array of practical and social benefits, and that we as an authority have received a substantial chunk of our initial financial outlay back through the gainshare programme.
Many local authorities have taken advantage of central government and European Union funding over recent years to bring broadband connectivity to their region. However, more work is required to secure the uptake of services across the country. Creating the infrastructure is clearly the first step, but driving uptake is just as crucial when it comes to unlocking the full benefits of improved connectivity for both the local authority itself, and the wider community we serve.