THOUSANDS of homes and businesses across the North-East are set to benefit from the latest expansion of the high-speed broadband network in a move business leaders hope could boost the region’s economy.

Up to 58,000 homes in the Tees Valley and about 14,000 properties in County Durham are the latest to be included in BT’s £2.5bn roll-out of fibre broadband across the UK.

The towns chosen for the upgrade -Darlington, Redcar and Norton, near Billingham, in the Tees Valley, and Barnard Castle, Beamish and Easington in County Durham – will be upgraded by spring next year.

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BT claims that the fibre technology raises download speeds from an average nine megabites per second (Mpbs) up to 330Mbps, the fastest speed recorded so far.

The announcement has been welcomed by council leaders and economic groups, which hope the improved connection to the world wide web will boost existing businesses and encourage others to set up in the area.

Stephen Catchpole, managing director of Local Enterprise Partnership Tees Valley Unlimited, said: “This is very welcome news for the start of 2013 - local businesses and households will be greatly encouraged by such a major investment, which shows we are making good progress in the partnership work that is strengthening our local economy.

“High-speed communications are essential in order to succeed in an ever more competitive and connected world and today’s announcement helps to reinforce Tees Valley’s credentials as a great place to live and do business.”

Councillor Chris McEwan, Darlington Borough Council's cabinet member for economy and regeneration, said: “Local businesses have made it clear that access to affordable, reliable, superfast broadband is essential for them to remain competitive and develop their business. This news puts in place an essential building block from which we can drive forward with our aims.”

Alan Napier, deputy leader of Durham County Council, said the news demonstrated that “we are making progress even in these tough economic times”.

Farooq Hakim, BT’s North-East regional director, said: “This latest investment is a major vote of confidence in the future success of this area. It will be a key part of our economic revival as we finally shrug off the effects of the downturn and create a better, more prosperous future.”