One of my earliest actions as a new Member of Parliament was to convene a major public meeting at the Three Counties Hotel in July 2010 on the vital local topic of fast broadband.
The Minister of State, Ed Vaizey MP. came up from London and we had a huge turnout of over 100 local people, testifying to the importance of the issue. Herefordshire was then one of the first areas to be included among the new Government broadband pilots.
Since then there have been stops and starts, but overall it is fair to say that tremendous progress has been made. Tens of thousands of business premises and homes now have fast broadband, and full fibre is being rolled out in Hereford and soon I hope in Ross-on-Wye.
Fastershire, the local authority initiative that straddles Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, has done a very good job.
But amid all this progress there has been a huge hole: a slew of rural hamlets and village communities, especially at the upper end of the Golden Valley, and in the Wye Valley, where even now there is no fast broadband of any kind.
While much of the county has enjoyed the benefits of fast broadband, these communities have been left behind. Worse still, their old pre-upgrade broadband service has actually deteriorated, to such an extent that it is becoming not merely inadequate, but unstable and unusable.
Businesses cannot function, young people cannot study, families cannot communicate. All this in the age of Covid and Zoom technology!
The Gigaclear rural full fibre contract agreed in 2015 (!) was designed to fill in the gaps. Much has been promised, regularly, but it has been repeatedly delayed. Just eight months ago, it looked as though we at last had daylight, with confirmation of a further contract with them that promised to bring full fibre at last to these most rural and dispersed areas. It was not to be.
But the problem is not just with Gigaclear; it is with Openreach as well. The existing telecoms service must be maintained, indeed upgraded, if these communities are to have any chance to handle a difficult winter, and the influx of staycation tourists over the summer months.
It is possible that the gap can be closed with new public investment.
I have made clear to the operators, and to Ministers, that Herefordians must be able to take full advantage of online services for education, entertainment and business.
First published in the Hereford Times, 28 Oct 2021