Surfing Cornwall, new style
A scheme to encourage broadband take-up in Cornwall has become a beacon of hope to internet users in remote areas across Europe. Kieren McCarthy reports
26 June 2003
"You should call actnow, I've got their number." On the phone is Tad Dewey, of Tad & Nick's internet cafe in Newquay, Cornwall. I have asked him ifhe has a CD-writer because I have a huge number of pdf files to download, which is literally going to take three days on my dial-up account. He hasn't, but what I really need is broadband, and actnow are the people to talk to. "Give them a call, they will sort it out for you and will even give you a rebate on the cost," he adds.
I call the number, and two weeks later, following a painless transition, not only is broadband working but I am paying less per month than for my previous 10-times-slower, mostly off connection. Oh, and an actnow IT consultant popped round last week and told me about a 40% rebate on the laptop and wireless network I was about to install.
This is the service that companies spend billions persuading us they provide. One call and the options were explained simply and clearly. I was given a contact name - Lara, who calls me after a few days, wondering if I need any more help as I hadn't called back when I said I would.
Once I made the decision to get broadband, everything that would happen was spelt out. Would I like to see the independent IT consultant, he'll be in my area on Tuesday. What about 2pm? Bang on time, Andy turns up and chats about what I'm trying to do, what help he can give, and other things to consider. It was like watching an advert come to life.
But don't take my word for it. Ray Newton, who runs the Riviera Hotel, also in Newquay, is installing a conference centre for 120 people. "We've got to move with the times and broadband is vital, not only for conferencing but for when business people come to stay." Actnow is helping install a six-port pipe, and Ray has trouble choosing the right superlative. "Actnow have been very efficient, exceptionally helpful."
Everyone wants broadband but it's not a matter of putting in a CD and clicking Install. It costs more, you have to install extra leads, and who do you go with anyway? Then you find you can't get it because you live too far from a big city. In Cornwall, a place that people from "up country" think only exists between June and August, you would have no chance.
Which was precisely the reason actnow was set up. BT was planning to upgrade just one exchange in Cornwall and warned that rural areas could expect to wait anything up to 20 years for fast internet access. But local organisations and businesses weren't willing to wait, and with an injection of £5.25m from the EU regeneration fund Objective One, actnow was born.
It started in April last year, and offers free and impartial advice to small-to-medium businesses regarding broadband and all things internet-related - from websites to e-commerce to wide area networks (WANs). It also provides rebates on broadband monthly fees, connection charges and all manner of IT equipment. BT was signed up as technology partner to provide the equipment and put in more than £3m to use Cornwall as a test-bed for rural broadband.
In return for the EU money, actnow has to hit various targets: 3,300 SMEs connected by the end of March 2005, plus 500 high-quality jobs and 90 new media business start-ups from 13 upgraded exchanges. One year into the three-year plan and connections are more than halfway there. Two-thirds have come in the past six months.
Awareness of actnow has also had a knock-on effect across Cornwall. Broadband take-up in the county is growing almost as fast as in cities. With more Cornish exchanges upgraded - and another six due by the end of summer - actnow has had to ask permission to extend its scheme.
Its success had been noted, too. It was recently given a Best eEurope Practices award. Visitors have come from Poland and the Netherlands, and an international conference is planned. Even government ministers have taken an interest. And the ultimate evidence of success: residents of neighbouring county and bitter rival Devon have forced its county council to introduce a similar scheme. Sometimes things aren't too good to be true, they're better.