The government has reminded business owners in 22 SuperConnected Cities they have just six months remaining to apply for grants worth up to £3,000 to cover the cost of setting up superfast broadband connections, before the scheme shuts down in March 2015.
The SuperConnected Cities scheme started in November 2011 when chancellor George Osborne announced a £100m boost to improve broadband in 10 UK cities. A second round of funding, totalling £50m, was announced in May 2012.
Under the terms of the scheme – which were significantly watered down in 2013 following legal challenges by BT and Virgin Media – companies with fewer than 250 employees and a turnover no greater than £42.4m a year, or a balance sheet of no more than £36.5m, are eligible for the vouchers.
However, the Financial Times (FT) recently revealed that just £7.5m worth of vouchers had been awarded, and said that Westminster was now planning to streamline the scheme to make it easier for SMEs to claim.
Digital minister Ed Vaizey told the newspaper just 6,000 businesses had applied for grants so far.
The government hopes the project will help urban areas create and attract new jobs and investment by easing access to new markets, improving productivity and customer service capabilities, and reducing IT hardware and software costs through cloud enablement.
Business minister Matthew Hancock said not being online was not an option for businesses.
“Nearly every small firm I meet says a fast, reliable broadband connection is vital for growth,” he said.
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“Making sure that all our businesses can access the resources they need to grow is an important part of our long-term economic plan,” he added.
Mark Collins, director of strategy and public affairs at CityFibre, said that in light of recent Federation of Small Business statistics – which suggested only 12% of UK SMEs currently have a fibre broadband connection – he was pleased with the government’s attempt to put broadband vouchers back in the limelight.
“The voucher scheme is a powerful mechanism that addresses an undeniable need for better connectivity from the businesses at the backbone of our economy,” said Collins.
“As an infrastructure partner of this scheme and with our local internet service provider partners offering game-changing services over our gigabit fibre networks, we would urge businesses to take advantage of the voucher funding and upgrade their connectivity today," he added.
The vouchers are available to businesses located in Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Brighton and Hove, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Derry/Londonderry, Edinburgh, Leeds and Bradford, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Newport, Nottingham, Oxford, Perth, Portsmouth, Salford, and York.