The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has extended its little-publicised broadband connection voucher initiative by 12 months, added £40m of new funding to the available kitty and increased the number of urban centres covered by the SuperConnected Cities scheme.
The news was tucked away in the full version of the 2014 Autumn Statement and was not announced by chancellor George Osborne in parliament.
“More than 5,000 small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across 22 cities have benefited from the government’s connection voucher scheme, with new broadband connections – on average – six-times faster than before,” said the government.
“For more businesses to benefit, the government is allocating up to £40m to extend the scheme to March 2016 and to more cities. Vouchers will be available in the new cities by April 2015 and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.”
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Earlier in autumn 2014, the government attempted to drum up support for the scheme after it emerged just £7.5m out of a total SuperConnected Cities funding pot of more than £100m had been awarded, with only 6,000 businesses in the UK having taken advantage of it.
A tranche of SuperConnected Cities funding has also been used to provide free public Wi-Fi in more than 1,000 public buildings, including leisure centres, libraries, galleries and museums.
Currently, the scheme is open to 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.
Some market watchers have criticised the scheme, arguing many SMEs in the urban areas have no real need for state aid as they are already well served by private investment in broadband, and the money would therefore be better spent in rural areas that BT is unable or unwilling to reach with its Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) initiative.
The cities presently covered by the scheme are 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.
A government spokesperson confirmed the extension of the scheme and told Computer Weekly DCMS would announce details of which cities will be added to the list in the new year.