Dealing with the digital divide

An infrastructure that links essential services is very welcome in rural Northumberland. Mike Simons reports

An infrastructure that links essential services is very welcome in rural Northumberland. Mike Simons reports

Ministers constantly express their determination to overcome the "digital divide", but in rural areas that is quite a challenge. There is nothing special about creating a council-wide telecommunications infrastructure and opening it up to other organisations in a city. But in a massive county like Northumberland it is an impressive achievement.

Chris Walker, Northumberland County Council's IT manager, had a simple aim - to overcome the area's chronic lack of bandwidth.

"There has been no competition for British Telecom up here," said Walker. "No-one bid for the cable licences, not even speculators. That has meant bandwidth has always been expensive."

To counter this the county council created its network, which covers all its departments, four of Northumberland's six district councils and all its schools.

Walker hopes this infrastructure will be extended to Web-enabled businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, which have traditionally suffered from high prices.

Northumberland County Council is also negotiating with other government bodies and agencies about sharing access to the infrastructure.

In addition, it is bidding for extra funding from the Government's Life-Long Learning initiative and its schemes to provide community IT access points.

The authority has worked with BT to ensure that every establishment within the county is within a local telephone call of a communications hub. All the hubs are connected to County Hall through a managed service from BT.

Care has been taken to ensure that all connections are expandable, future-proofing the network against increasing use and growing capacity requirements.

Calls from the Cabinet Office are important, said Walker, who commended the way ministers changed their recent e-government proposals after the initial draft to take into account the problems of rural areas in the final proposal.

However, he said rhetoric has to be turned into reality. "Often it is the IT people who can act as catalysts for change," said Walker. "We know what can be done, and what has been done elsewhere."

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