FRESH plans for sweeping advances to broadband speeds in rural areas surrounding Darlington have been given a cautious welcome.

Campaigners in villages such as Redworth, Heighington, Piercebridge and Summerhouse said they were hopeful of significant quality of life improvements after being included in first rollout area the Digital Durham-led Building Digital UK Project Gigabit programme.

While the procurement process will start in May and could deliver first upgrades in mostly rural areas by next year, villagers have expressed doubts over the timing following what they describe as numerous “false dawns”.

Darlington Borough Council says current broadband infrastructure projects and upgrades to gigabit enabled speeds on a fibre to property basis are taking place on new housing estates and through Building Digital UK and Tees Valley Combined Authority funding.

Meanwhile, residents in the rural western villages of Darlington from next month are set to be offered Government vouchers to help fund gigabit enabled mobile technology from provider Quickline.

The council said it had been in contact with numerous commercial rural broadband providers, such as Voneus Netomnia and Quickline, to evaluate how further rural gaps can be closed in the borough by the vouchers.

In addition, the authority said broadband providers would be providing upgrades in the coming years to their current infrastructure and are eager to retrofit areas which have had in the last decade speed under 100mb per second installed. 

However, a council spokesman warned areas to be given the upgrades are chosen by the providers themselves on a commercial basis and highlighted that local authorities were only able to lobby the providers for certain communities to be included in future.

Heighington and Coniscliffe councillor Gerald Lee said he had been working to improve broadband speeds in villages to the west of Darlington since 2006, with frustrating results, but he was cautiously optimistic between the vouchers scheme and Digital Durham, residents would start to see improvements.

He said: “It’s a long and pitiful saga. People’s emotions have gone up and down from joy to absolute despair. There has been some very serious implications as far as access to broadband is concerned. It’s a totally unsatisfactory situation in 2021 when everything depends on broadband, whether you’re a primary school child or running a farm business.”

Cllr Lee said some residents were still facing speeds as slow as 0.1mb per second. He said while a senior doctor living in the villages was unable to contact James Cook University Hospital, one student had to make regular trips to her grandparents’ home in Darlington to be able to get on a website for her schoolwork.

In another case brought to his attention, a company manager feared being made redundant because she couldn’t keep in contact with her head office.

Cllr Lee said despite connecting Redworth to fast broadband speeds having cost less than £30,000 for several years, it was not be upgraded by BT Openreach until June.

He said: “Two years ago they offered to do it, but they only offered to do one side of the road, which is nonsense, and we said so, so they pulled the plug again.

“In Piercebridge, people at the top end of the village get a reasonable signal, but the further you go from the cabinet towards the River Tees you are down to smoke signals again.”