A £1.5M SCHEME to provide high-speed Internet access in rural communities has been unveiled.

Fourteen exchanges, serving some of the most remote areas of North Yorkshire, could soon be connected to broadband under the broadband gap project.

The scheme, developed by North Yorkshire County Council and regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, would mean hundreds of rural homes and businesses receiving high-speed Internet access after being told by BT that broadband connection was not financially viable.

John Moore, the county council's corporate director for financial services, said in a report: "In July 2004, BT announced that 23 exchange areas in Yorkshire and Humber would not be enabled with their current ADSL service and that they had no plans for future services in these areas.

"This left approximately 5,000 households and 2,000 businesses with no access to both ADSL broadband services and also future services, putting those areas at a significant economic disadvantage."

County councillor Carl Les said that connecting the 14 exchanges in rural North Yorkshire to broadband was vital if these communities were to thrive.

"This doesn't mean these communities will be more competitive," said Coun Les.

"However, it does take away the barriers to competitiveness.

"With high-speed broadband, there's no reason why a rural company involved in digital commerce in Hawes can't compete with a similar business in central Leeds or Manchester."

Connecting the 14 exchanges to broadband would be paid for with a £1.5m grant from Yorkshire Forward. This work could start in April.

Plans have also been announced to look at ways of improving the broadband network across the whole of North Yorkshire and make the most of "next generation" broadband services.

This could include using microwave technology instead of cables to speed up internet connections.

A £585,000 grant from the European Regional Development Fund has been pledged to find public and private partners to investigate the possibilities. The 14 North Yorkshire exchanges which could get broadband later this year are: Wainstones, Coverdale, Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Sawley, Hackness, Cracoe, Lockton, Arncliffe, Ramsgill Dale, Goathland, Blubberhouse, Jervaulx, Bilsdale and Burnsall.

Councillors will discuss the broadband gap project at a meeting to be held at County Hall, Northallerton, tomorrow.