Project leaders behind the £6.4 million Mobile Access North Yorkshire (MANY) scheme to bring 5G to Coverdale say a “wide variety of community members” have been consulted on the plans.
MANY says the consultation has aimed to understand residents’ current experiences of connectivity within the area, while gaining knowledge about their hopes and expectations.
The project has faced criticism from some residents who say the consultation process has been poor and the need for the masts to deliver the 5G has not been demonstrated.
Officials say the engagement process has included several themes: community engagement and parish council meetings, as well as one-to-one research interviews as part of an independent study undertaken by Lancaster University Management School.
The research project has been led by Professor Katy Mason.
She said: “Through our interviews we develop an understanding of resident’s experiences, hopes, expectations and concerns of connectivity.
“This information is collected and analysed in accordance with our ethical guidance. We look for patterns in the data – what people are telling us.
“Our findings are then fed into the MANY project, so that the technical solutions developed are right for the people in the community.”
MANY said the project had heard that the Covid-19 pandemic had heightened connectivity problems.
Working from home, remote schooling and GP appointments were some of the activities that had moved online, but this has proved problematic for Coverdale residents with poor internet connections.
Other residents said unreliable broadband had been an issue for a number of years.
Tim Brown, a farmer from Agglethorpe, said: “Defra assume our systems are online.
“For example, updating records whilst out or registering cattle after their birth – we cannot upload there and then. If we had fast connections, we could do.
“However, we also struggle with unreliable broadband which has been known to go down for weeks; therefore we can’t even take the information home and upload it.”
Tim added: “If we had reliable connectivity we could do so much more. For example, we could put cameras in the sheds so we have a live stream available during calving.
“My son, Edward, has just finished Newton Rigg College and has so many ideas but until there is a reliable connection – inside and out – it is impossible.”
Tim’s partner, Sarah Close, says there is wider implications of a lack of connectivity – the move of people away from the dale.
“Young people tend to move away from the area at working age but they are keen to move back when they are ready to start a family.
“However, it doesn’t offer what families want.”
Sarah adds: “Giving people what they want will bring people to the area; making the area thrive and ensuring its future.”
Leo Morris, manager of The Saddle Rooms restaurant, said: “We have had guests walk out because of the lack of digital connectivity – people expect it and we can’t currently offer it.
“As a hospitality business we have been hit hard by the pandemic which has included having to close for many months and losing key events.
“If we had better connectivity across the site we can ensure our customers and staff are happy and safe but, also, drive the business forward through things like personalised virtual show rounds for weddings.
“We are at a disadvantage because we lack the basics that our competitors have access.”
North Yorkshire County Councillor, executive member for access Don MacKenzie said: “The last few months have allowed Coverdale residents to have their voices heard about their current connectivity experiences informing not just the project but a programme which can influence future rural connectivity across the country.
“It has been integral to the project to develop this understanding to ensure the right solutions are developed.”