A SCHEME to give Test Valley villages faster broadband has begun as part of a £3 billion project.

The first spades have entered the ground in Test and Dun Valley as Virgin Media launched its plans to roll out ultrafast broadband in the area.

It follows a community campaign from Test Valley Need 4 Speed and West Tytherley Broadband Group, supported by Romsey and Southampton North MP Caroline Nokes.

The project will enable up to 4,000 premises across 12 villages to access speeds almost 200 times faster than current rates.

The scheme is the first of its kind for Virgin Media and is part of £3 billion Project Lightning nationwide.

Currently, rural villagers in the area get speeds that hit just 2mbs – less than five times what regulator Ofcom deems the necessary minimum.

Now, thousands of homes and businesses in villages including Houghton, West Tytherley, Broughton, Michelmersh and Timsbury will reach speeds of up to 300mbs.

Cate Bell, chairman of West Tytherley and Frenchmoor Parish Council, has fought for the faster speeds.

She said: "This is the result of a huge community campaign, championed by several individuals across the area. We are thrilled that Virgin Media recognised the opportunity presented by this rural build."

MP Caroline Nokes said: "I am amazed by the huge amount of work which has been put in by members of the community in rural parts of my constituency, particularly Cate Bell and her team, but also the community champions who worked so tirelessly to make this build a reality.

"Access to fast broadband is essential for modern life and prior to this project, four wards in my constituency were in the lowest ten per cent for broadband speeds in the country; that changes this year and I am delighted."

Due to the rural environment, Virgin Media said it didn't initially meet the 'usual commercial requirements' for expansion, but the community groups stepped in and approached Virgin Media in 2016 and requested the changes.

Rob Evans, managing director of Virgin Media Lightning programme, said: "We are extremely excited about our ultrafast broadband expansion in the Test and Dun Valleys – this is a new way of delivering our gigabit-ready network. This has been a brilliant example of us working hand in hand with the local community to deliver a solution which works for us both."