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Cost of rural business broadband is 'immoral'

Friday, November 21st 2014 by Ellen Branagh

A rural business owner has hit out at what he calls the “immoral” cost of getting decent broadband that is vital to his company.

Oli Christie, managing director of mobile games studio Neon Play, said the lack of adequate broadband speeds in his area has forced him to pay £8,000 a year for a fibre optic leased line that can give him the speeds he needs.

He called for more to be done to reduce the divide between rural and urban areas, and the divide between Britain and other countries.

Speaking to Cable.co.uk, Mr Christie said his team undertakes a lot of web usage, uploading and downloading large volumes in order to test games.

He said the firm, which is based in a former museum in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, started off with normal business broadband but it could not provide sustainable speeds needed for the work it does.

Neon Play upgraded to an EFM (Ethernet First Mile) line, bringing speeds of 10Mbps, then up to 23Mbps, but Mr Christie said that still was not enough, so it is now paying for a fibre optic lease line from BT – at a cost of £8,000 a year – which he hopes will bring speeds of up to 100Mbps.

“There’s literally a green BT box attached to our building,” he said.

“Some areas of Cirencester have got 100Mbps but our area hasn’t, maybe because it's not populated so much with houses or businesses or whatever it is.

“But there are lots of businesses, there are a lot of employees in the area, a lot of shops and estate agents, and we're all crying out for it.

"It's just immoral, quite frankly, that I'm having to pay £8,000 for it and another business is having to pay £6,000 for it, everyone's having to do their own thing.

"If you put all these companies together surely it's financially viable for BT?”

Neon Play, which Mr Christie set up in June 2010, has had more than 55 million iPhone/iPad game downloads and ten number one games, including Paper Glider, Flick Football and Traffic Panic London, in 160 countries.

The firm has won 20 business awards, including the UK’s Best Start-up in the Nectar Business Awards, while Mr Christie was also voted Entepreneur of the Year in the Chamber of Commerce Awards.

But he said the problems with connectivity made it difficult for his business to compete on a level-playing field, both with UK competitors in urban areas, and with other countries.

"You feel like second-class citizens. We export to 160 countries, we're one of the best mobile games companies in the world yet we're like a third world country.”

The entrepreneur raised his points at the Action with Communities in Rural England’s (ACRE) Why Rural Matters conference in London last week, where he delivered a speech as part of the section on rural businesses.

ACRE’s head of rural insight Nick Chase said: “Access to decent speed broadband is an ongoing challenge for rural businesses.

“Without broadband speeds comparable with those in urban areas, rural businesses will continue to be at severe disadvantage.

“And, given the global nature of some businesses, (this) could lead them to be less competitive and therefore put growth and jobs at risk.

“Currently, we find some rural businesses without acceptable broadband speeds are constantly playing catch up with their urban counterparts unless they are prepared to pay very high costs to get connected and stay connected; this cannot be good for the UK economy.”

Professor Mark Shucksmith, director at the Newcastle Institute of Social Renewal, said: “I think if you talk to rural businesses, and we’ve surveyed lots of them from the Newcastle University Centre for Rural Economy, they will put this as the number one issue facing them.

“And as the expectations of working in the global connected world require faster and faster rates of connectivity, greater and greater bandwidth, and more and more reliability, firms are really screaming about the difficulties they face in many areas of rural Britain.

“And not to have that absolutely fundamental 21st century infrastructure is a real obstacle.”

A BT spokesman said: “We have been working closely with Neon Play to find the right solution for them as a business.

“For companies of their size and scope - where a fast, reliable and secure connection to the internet is crucial to their business model - we would definitely recommend a dedicated business line, which is known in the industry as ‘ethernet’.

“Ethernet currently supports speeds of up to 10Gbps, is widely available across the UK and is far more appropriate for such businesses, given the extremely high levels of resilience and security it offers.

“There are also government vouchers available to help businesses with the one-off cost of installing such lines.

“BT is doing more than any other company to increase the availability of lower-priced fibre broadband – investing more than £3 billion pounds on our rollout across the UK – but that is primarily aimed at consumers, home workers and the smallest SMEs.”

But asked about the efforts to improve connectivity in rural areas, Mr Christie called for authorities to “get on with it”.

He added: “Do it quicker. Stop making excuses and just get on with it."

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