NYnet, a six-month-old publically-owned, privately-run communications network in North Yorkshire, could provide a blueprint for extending fast broadband networks to under-served rural areas.
Traditionally, rural users face high charges for broadband connections outside major towns and transmission speeds far slower than advertised. Telecommunications providers are reluctant to invest in areas where traffic volumes are small and distances are large because returns are low and costs high. As a result people in rural areas generally have limited access to advanced high speed comunications services.
But NYnet, based in Boroughbridge, has joined an eight-country, £2.4m European Commission study on how to overcome suppliers' resistance to investing in high speed communications networks in sparsely-populated areas.
Len Cruddas, CEO of the York & North Yorkshire chamber of commerce, welcomed NYnet. "It is early days, but we are already seeing positive effects, especially in the business parks that it is targeting," he said. "As NYnet becomes better known and more people take advantage of it, we expect it to be transformational in the local economy."
He said the region had many small businesses that either sold goods online or created electronic products. NYnet allowed them to compete on more equal terms with urban firms because its speed and pricing were equal or better than broadband links in towns, he said.
NYnet came in to being last year because the North Yorkshire County Council and Yorkshire Forward economic development agency felt the region was i n danger of being left behind in the knowledge economy. The latest Ofcom figures show broadband penetration in rural Yorkshire and Humberside at 16% for rural areas compared to 55% in towns.
The two Yorkshire agencies negotiated with public services suppliers such as schools, libraries, disaster recovery, council offices, police, NHS and others to aggregate their communications traffic. The county council contributed by migrating its own network, covering 484 sites, to the fibre ring. And local councils ageed to share services and procurement information, bulking up orders to gain volume discounts. This traffic provided a base load that justified an investment of £42.5m over 10 years in an optical fibre ring network to serve some 600,000 people and 50,000 businesses.
NYnet, which won the management contract, subcontracted network management to BT Global Services.
Andy Lister, Nynet's sales and marketing director, said the initial problem was to get enough traffic to justify the investment. With public sector traffic secured, retail broadband prices are competitive with London or Leeds, says Lister.
He is using local ISPs to tackle the region's 60-odd business parks. One is Save9, a Scarborough communications services company that now provides secure managed IT and communications services to the 50 businesses in Scarborough's £4.8m Woodend Creative Centre, a digital business park and incubator.
Save9 managing director Steve Bronham said the availability of the ring network has attracted new businesses such as web designers, database firms and digital artists as well as the BBC to the town. "The BBC could not do digital video here without the high speed links," he said.
Lister says each knowledge-economy job was worth £1m over 10 years. "Six months after going live, it is too soon to say just how many jobs we will create or attract," he said. But, he claims, taxpayers have already benefited because local councils are able to use the fibre optic ring to collaborate on bulk buying.