South Yorkshire’s Digital Region chief hits back after mixed views about investment

Digital Region chief operating officer David Cowell
Digital Region chief operating officer David Cowell
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SOUTH Yorkshire’s £90 million Digital Region project to provide superfast broadband internet will ‘transform’ facilities for homes and businesses, its chief operating officer has revealed.

SOUTH Yorkshire’s £90 million Digital Region project to provide superfast broadband internet will ‘transform’ facilities for homes and businesses, its chief operating officer has revealed.

David Cowell, who took over the post in January and has previously worked at BT and Cable and Wireless, defended the scheme after recent criticism over poor initial take-up which necessitated a financial bail-out by councils.

It has emerged South Yorkshire councils have had to increase their loans to the project from an original £40 million to £50 million to cover operating losses due to poor take-up since the service was launched in 2010.

But Mr Cowell said construction of the network has now been completed ‘on budget’, covering 80 per cent of the county and offering broadband at four times the speed of existing networks.

He predicted better usage because ‘a number of internet service providers have now signed up’, including four based locally – Ask For, DRSY, Little Big One and Origin.

Tendering will be completed by the end of the year to transfer running of Digital Region to a private firm, although ownership will remain in public hands.

French firm ETDE and BT are the two shortlisted bidders from 29 applicants, despite BT having upgraded its existing network.

Mr Cowell said: “The decision to develop the network was deeply visionary at a time when there were high unemployment. It was seen as a way of bringing economic regeneration and transforming facilities.”

He added: “Residents and business across South Yorkshire can now get access to the network through internet service providers and have the benefits.”

Mr Cowell said the contract with BT or ETDE would be for seven years and it is likely to include repaying some of the development costs.

NOT everyone has been impressed by the decision to create South Yorkshire’s £90 million Digital Region scheme.

One critic, IT professional Allen Cowles, of Greystones Road, Whiston, Rotherham, who has had a connection box outside his home repeatedly vandalised, queried the scheme’s value for money.

He said: “I can’t imagine how few seconds I would have remained employed, if I had to tell a CEO that the solution was usable by 80 per cent of clients.”

Mr Cowles queried the need for public funding when private networks are developing their own, alternative services.

Coun Bryan Lodge, Sheffield Council finance spokesman, said: “Digital Region has stimulated operators such as BT, only improved local internet due to the competition. It will provide a fantastic resource.