Councillors will next week hear about the progress that has been made to improve digital connectivity for communities across County Durham.
In 2013, Durham County Council established its Digital Durham programme to help enhance digital connectivity across the county, including supporting the delivery of a superfast broadband scheme.
On Wednesday (November 17), the council’s Ccbinet will hear how this scheme is expected to be completed towards the end of 2021, with the delivery of superfast broadband coverage to 64,000 properties in the county and almost 114,000 in total across the region.
At the start of the programme, superfast coverage in the county was at 65 per cent. This now stands at 97 per cent, in line with the UK average.
The programme is now focussed on the roll-out of next-generation broadband services, such as full fibre connections and expanding 5G network capability across the county.
Digital Durham is also now working closely with commercial broadband suppliers and the Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), on the delivery of Project Gigabit, to put the county’s homes and businesses in the best possible position in terms of gigabit-capable coverage.
Cabinet will hear how the government has dedicated £5 billion to Project Gigabit, which aims to maximise coverage to the 20 per cent of the UK that are the hardest-to-reach, potentially improving connectivity for the county’s rural areas.
They will also hear how Digital Durham continues to support residents and business owners impacted by poor broadband speeds, particularly in rural areas, where the council has committed £1.5m of its own resources.
This doubles the financial incentives available to internet providers under DCMS’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme to help close the commercial viability gap and encourage connections in these areas.
As the demand for better technology and faster broadband increases, a lack of digital skills or access to a device or the internet can have a significant impact on residents and communities.
For residents, this can lead to reduced access to jobs and education, poorer health outcomes and a lower life expectancy, as well as increased loneliness, social isolation and financial exclusion.
People who are digitally excluded may also lack visibility in the modern world, as public and democracy services move online.
Digital Drive, part of the wider Digital Durham initiative, is a £4m scheme dedicated to helping the county’s Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) maximise their growth through digital technology.
Funded by the European Regional Development Fund, Business Durham, and private investment, the scheme offers support such as one-to-one advice, masterclasses, and funding for digital related projects.
The council’s Adult Learning and Skills Service also offers a variety of IT courses, including digital skills training for people either in or searching for employment.
Councillors will also hear how in 2025, suppliers such as BT will be making a shift away from the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), currently used to support landline phone calls, to delivering landline calls digitally using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which uses a broadband connection to support the service.
Susan McDonnell, Durham County Council’s cabinet member for digital, customer services and procurement, said: “The provision of county-wide, fast and reliable broadband connectivity is an integral part of our Council Plan and ambitions for economic growth, increasing employment opportunities and creating the right environment to build thriving, connected communities that will help residents to live long and independent lives.
“Better access in harder-to-reach rural areas will help address digital exclusion and support the levelling-up of rural businesses, farming, and tourism, as well as the broader rural community in terms of education, access to jobs and social inclusion.”