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BT and Virgin Media unable to rescue Sheffield from superfast broadband gap

Sheffield faces a broadband dark age with BT and Virgin Media unable to replace superfast services from the disastrous Digital Region fibre project.

The loss-making £120 million project will shut down on August 14, leaving many parts of South Yorkshire without a superfast broadband option.

Jonathan Thornhill, director of Sheffield ISP ASK4, told local newspaper The Star that it will take years for alternative providers to cover Sheffield city centre after avoiding the area because of Digital Region’s presence.

The lights are about to go out on Sheffield's broadband dream
The lights are about to go out on Sheffield’s broadband dream

“Because Digital Region was in the city centre first the other network providers went elsewhere. It’s caused a big problem,” Thornhill said. “I think it will take up to three years for the other carriers like Openreach and Virgin to fill the gap.”

Digital Region was the brainchild of South Yorkshire’s four local councils, but  in 2013 the British government ordered it to close after only 3,000 users signed up, with losses running at £1m every month.

Local councils for Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham will have to pay back up to £14m to the EU before they can close the network down. Europe funded the project to the tune of £27m to help get fibre to 97 per cent of homes and businesses in the area.

The Star said councils are switching their own services and schools to business broadband from BT and Virgin Media, but local businesses face costs of £600 a month to buy leased lines which match Digital Region’s 38Mbps capacity.

The alternative for them and every residential customer will be standard ADSL from BT, with a typical speed of around 10Mbps.

BT and Virgin Media are likely to move into the most profitable parts of the area given time, but as reported by Recombu in January, the best hope for South Yorkshire is that it will be added to the government’s Broadband Delivery for the UK (BDUK) project.

The DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), the government department in charge of BDUK, has earmarked £5m for the region but local authorities will have to find more money to match this, which local taxpayers may be unwilling to cough up after the Digital Region debacle.

Image: Paolo Margari/Flickr