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Internet

Superfast Broadband to Rev Up Newcastle Again

The launch of a programme designed to bring superfast broadband to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in north-east England could help drive business opportunities in a part of the world famous for its roots in heavy industry. Go Digital Newcastle, a government and Europe-backed scheme that will be delivered by Newcastle City Council, will bring fibre links to 97% of the city by summer next year. This will be supplemented by free Wi-Fi in the city centre, vouchers worth up to £3000 per company and a support programme to help local small businesses take advantage of broadband and other technological developments.

What is this worth? Well, Go Digital Newcastle is citing the UK Broadband Impact Study, published this year and suggesting that every £1 invested in broadband by government will generate £20 for the economy. The investment here is £9m so, says project director Lisa Clark, the fiscal benefit is being pegged at a “conservative” figure of £150m.

Broadband will provide the basic plumbing providing 30 megabit per second connections and higher, but it will be supported with advice for business owners that stand to capitalise on this new infrastructure, for example by putting more commercial services online or taking advantage of mobile or cloud technology opportunities.

“There will be people who are nervous about how to proceed and who are partly or completely disengaged from technology,” Clark says. “They may be new companies or companies that have been around three, five or ten years. The connection voucher scheme is also important because cost is definitely a barrier [to adoption] today. This scheme is critical for a modern city in attracting inward investment. Some people might see it as wires and boxes but in 10 years’ time if we don’t have this we will lag so far behind as the world becomes a global marketplace.”

“Newcastle is a city that is proud of its heritage of innovation. It's great to see the city's authorities investing in the next phase of the information revolution,” says Charlie Hoult, chairman of Opencast Software, a local enterprise tech firm.

“The City is often self-critical of its current capabilities but I firmly believe that the region's tech cluster is as strong as ever - look at the IT economy including Sage, Accenture's UK Delivery Centre, Scott Logic, JHC and Orchard. These firms have international reach — Go Digital Newcastle is laying the foundations for the next generation.”

The scheme is likely to be closely watched because Newcastle is quite a barometer of the fortunes of the UK. Having helped the country grow plump by providing coal, steel and ships, the post-Margaret Thatcher years have seen it reinvent itself as a retail, leisure and nightlife super-cluster with growing tourism levels and a new service-led economy that takes advantage of the city’s strong transport links.

However, beyond councillors’ talk of turning “local heroes into superheroes”, it should be noted that Newcastle is already a fairly techie city: Clark estimates that without this latest impetus, about 85% of Novocastrians would have enjoyed access to fast broadband anyway. It has long had a reputation for being a city of early-adopters: from the huge shopping malls of Eldon Square and the Metrocentre, just across the River Tyne in Gateshead, to its excellent Metro overground/underground transit system. It is home to UK’s largest software company Sage, a major HP office and many smaller companies. There are fine universities in the city and quarter of an hour away in Durham.

The scheme won’t be a panacea, but for cities like Newcastle, once the locale of railway pioneers George and Robert Stephenson, the importance of having a slick communications platform can hardly be overstated.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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