A committee of MPs met BT and organisations that support rural communities for an update on progress in getting broadband to rural communities to support the digital by default government policy.
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They also heard how farmers are coping with the online application system for payments through the Common Agricultural policy, and how those struggling will be supported.
The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee quizzed representatives of the Rural Payments Agency, local government, BT and the Country Landowners Association to understand their positions on the rural broadband debate.
Sean Williams, group director of strategy, policy and portfolio at BT, updated MPs about the company's progress.
Williams said BT will meet the BDUK goal of making at least 2Mbps broadband available to everyone by 2015 and superfast broadband (24Mbps) accessible to 95% of the population by 2017.
“We are importing labour from all over Europe to get this done,” Williams said.
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Technology mix to meet target
Williams said the EU's diktat, to connect all citizens with speeds of at least 2Mbps by 2015, will be achieved – not just using fibre, but using other technologies such as satellite broadband and wireless.
He said some areas, that are hard to reach, make fibre uneconomic and other means of connection might be used.
When it comes to superfast broadband speeds – meaning those from 24Mbps and above – MPs told stories of constituents that live too far from a cabinet to get fast broadband. BT runs fibre to the cabinet, but then copper wire to premises. After 1km, a signal sent over copper deteriorates.
Williams said that, for those people who will not get superfast broadband, there will still be significant improvement.
CAP payments go online
Mark Grimshaw, CEO at the Rural Payments Agency, also addressed MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. They quizzed him as to how the organisation will ensure farmers get the Common Agricultural Policy funds critical to their livelihoods.
From January 2015, all applications for the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Single Payment Scheme will have to be made online. The Rural Payments Agency has committed to providing “additional support” for customers who can’t access the internet, those who feel they lack the appropriate skills, and those who do not own a computer.
The online system was not built from scratch but is rather a collection of software used in different countries integrated with off-the-shelf software, said Grimshaw.
It was developed using agile techniques.
Farmers deploy grandchildren
He said the system works at 2Mbps. “We have tested it as low as 500bps and it works.” He said fears of systems crashing while farmers fill out forms will be allayed by an automatic system which saves the form automatically after each section is completed.
To support farmers that cannot complete the forms themselves, the Rural Payments Agency has 50 support centres that are never more than 30 miles from a farm. These centres will provide computers, internet access and support to farmers that need it. He said these centres would open 24 hours a day during peak periods, if required.
“We have seen farmers bring their children and grandchildren because they understand where the computer knowledge is,” said Grimshaw.