Category Archives: Solutions

Current alternatives won’t light up Britain’s broadband blackspots

Despite the British government’s boasts of the steady roll-out of superfast broadband to more than four out of five homes and businesses, you needn’t be a statistician to realise that this means one out of five are still unconnected. In fact, the recent story about a farmer who was so incensed by his slow broadband that he built his own 4G mast in a field to replace it shows that for much of the country, little has improved.

The government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme claims that it will provide internet access of at least 24 Mbps (megabits per second) to 95% of the country by 2017 through fibre to the cabinet, where fast fibre optic networks connect BT’s exchanges to street cabinets dotted around towns and villages. The final connection to the home comes via traditional (slower) copper cables.

Those in rural communities are understandably sceptical of the government’s “huge achievement”, arguing that only a fraction of the properties included in the government’s running total can achieve reasonable broadband speeds, as signals drop off quickly with distance from BT’s street cabinets. Millions of people are still struggling to achieve even basic broadband, and not necessarily just in the remote countryside, but in urban areas such as Redditch, Lancaster and even Pimlico in central London.

Four problems to solve

This cabinet is a problem, not a solution. mikecattell, CC BY

Our research found four recurring problems: connection speeds, latency, contention ratios, and reliability.

Getting high-speed ADSL broadband delivered over existing copper cables is not possible in many areas, as the distance from the exchange or the street cabinet is so far that the broadband signal degrades and speeds drop. Minimum speed requirements are rising as the volume of data we use increases, so such slow connections will become more and more frustrating.

But speed is not the only limiting factor. Network delay, known as latency, can be as frustrating as it forces the user to wait for data to arrive or to be assembled into the right order to be processed. Most of our interviewees had high latency connections.

Many home users also suffer from high contention, where a connection slows as more users in the vicinity log on – for example, during evenings after work and at weekends. One respondent pointed out that the two or three large companies in the neighbouring village carried out their daily company backups between 6.30pm-8.30pm. This was obvious, he said, because during that time internet speeds “drop off the end of a cliff”.

Connection reliability is also a problem, with connections failing randomly for no clear reason, or due to weather such as heavy rain, snow or wind – not very helpful in Britain.

Three band-aid solutions

With delivery by copper cable proving inadequate for many, other alternatives have been suggested to fill the gaps.

Mobile phones are now ubiquitous devices, and mobile phone networks cover a huge proportion of the country. A 4G mobile network connection could potentially provide 100Mbps speeds. Unfortunately, the areas failed by poor fixed line broadband provision are often the same areas with poor mobile phone networks – particularly rural areas. While 2G/3G network coverage is better, it is far slower. Without unlimited data plans, users will also face monthly caps on use as part of their contract. Weather conditions can also adversely affect the service.

Satellite broadband could be the answer and can provide reasonably high speeds of up to around 20 Mbps. But despite the decent bandwidth available, satellite connections have high latency from the slow speed of transferring data to and from satellites, due to the far larger distances involved between satellites and the ground. High latency connections make it very difficult or impossible to use internet telephony such as Skype, to stream films, video or music, or play online games. It’s not really an option in mountainous regions, and is a more expensive option.

A third alternative is to use fixed wireless, relaying broadband signals over radio transmitters to cover the distance from where BT’s fixed-line fibre optic network ends. These services generally provide 20Mbps, low latency connections. However, radio towers require line-of-sight access which could be a problem given obstructions from hills or woods – factors that, again, limit use where it’s most needed.

The only one that fits

All these alternatives tend to be more expensive to set up and run, come with more strict data limits, and can be affected by atmospheric conditions such as rain, wind or fog. The only true superior alternative to fibre to the cabinet is to provide fibre to the home (FTTH), in which the last vestiges of the original copper telephone network are replaced with high-speed fibre optic right to the door of the home or business premises. Fibre optic is faster, can carry signals without loss over greater distances, and is more upgradable than copper. A true fibre optic solution would future-proof Britain’s internet access network for decades to come.

Despite its expense, it is the only solution for many rural communities, which is why some have organised to provide it for themselves, such as B4RN and B4YS in the north of England, and B4RDS in the southwest. But this requires a group of volunteers with knowledge, financial means, and the necessary dedication to lay the infrastructure that could offer a 1,000 Mbps service regardless of line distance and location – which won’t be an option for all.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

News Digest Rural Broadband: July 2014

Another month has gone by with again lots of media attention for slow Internet connections in rural areas. This time the news brings us: how Scottish independence might benefit rural broadband services, disgruntled BT customers, B4RN’s hyper speed broadband, and a breakthrough technology that will squeeze 10 gigabits per second down old-fashioned copper wires (or not?). Enjoy!

31 July – BT forges on with fibre roll-out but customer uptake weak
BT is rolling out fibre optic broadband across the UK at a steady pace, but only 15% of fibre-ready premises have signed up for the superfast internet service. BT is at the centre of some controversy over the roll-out of superfast broadband in rural areas. Read more…

23 July – Broadband roll-out ‘poorly managed’, says rural activist
The UK government-led roll-out of broadband to rural areas has been poorly managed and failed to consider a wide enough range of technologies to solve access problems in the maximum possible number of areas, one rural activist has told Read more…

22 July – Rural anti-BT backlash may halt expansion of pioneering West Country broadband project
The UK’s first state-funded broadband project may not be extended after councillors branded BT’s speed promise for rural users ‘a nightmare. ‘Local organiser Geoff Preston said: “The whole thing is a bit of a scam. All BT are doing is connecting up the green box in the street to superfast broadband, but if you live more than a couple of hundred yards away, or have old wires to your house, your speeds won’t improve that much.” Read more…

21 July – Anger over the reality of ‘super-fast’ rural broadband for West homes 
Tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being given to BT to provide rural counties across the West with superfast broadband, but after realising the broadband either would not reach them or would not be that much faster even if it did, more villages are signing their own deals to get high-tech wifi transmitters installed instead. Read more…

18 July – UK Broadband — Not Fit for Purpose (Blog Post by Lindsey Annison)
It would seem that far too many people are happy to skirt around the issues, to deliver platitudes and sound bites to willing journalists who don’t actually feel like investigating the truth or facing the elephant in the country. Particularly in the countryside. I was brought up in Yorkshire where a spade (particularly when used for a fibre dig) is a spade. UK Broadband is quite simply not fit for purpose. There – a trunk, 2 flappy ears and a long memory. See it?! Read more…

17 July –  Rural businesses suffering from poor broadband service
A Europasat survey of rural residents last month highlighted the frustration felt by many when trying to use the internet. The survey showed 36 per cent of rural residents felt let down by the Government on their service, with a third having being promised a superfast broadband scheme which they were yet to receive. Read more…

14 July – UK broadband not fit for purpose, says business group
UK broadband is not fit for purpose and a major government rethink is needed, according to a business lobby group. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) says that the UK’s broadband target is simply not ambitious enough when compared to other nations. It is calling on the government to commit to delivering a minimum of 10Mbps (megabits per second) for all homes and businesses by 2018/19. Read more…

14 July – Scottish rural broadband will strengthen under independence
A GROUP will be set up to consider how to improve issues such as mobile and broadband coverage, postal services and transport links for rural communities if the country votes for independence in September. “Too often people who live outside urban areas poorly served by the market and the UK Government when it comes to services vital in the 21st century. With independence, we will have the powers to regulate these crucial services and to remove barriers which are holding back rural areas from achieving their full potential”. Read more…

11 July – Villagers dig their own superfast broadband network
Villagers became so fed up with their slow internet connections they dug trenches and laid down superfast broadband cables to each property themselves. Now residents of the hamlet of Dolphinholme, Lancs, benefit from one of the fastest broadband networks in the UK with speeds of up to one gigabit per second (Gbps). Read more…

10 July – Disgruntled BT customer complains of connection woes at her rural home
Disgruntled BT customers have spoken of their annoyance at the poor internet connection at their Edingthorpe home. “They think I am being greedy but I just want a little bit of what I pay for. I don’t think it is a big ask. We shouldn’t have to live like this because we may be a rural community but we do exist.” Read more…

10 July – Broadband breakthrough could bring super-fast internet to every home in UK
Boffins test new technology and manage record speeds never though possible through existing phone lines. A team of broadband experts have managed to achieve lightning speeds of 10 gigabits per second in a groundbreaking test. Sadly, some experts are warning broadband customers not to get too excited by this news. The test performed in Belgium used a cable just 30 metres in length. This would only allow customers near their local telephone exchange recieve these blistering speeds. Read more…

10 July – More homes set to receive superfast broadband
Farmers increasingly rely on the internet, both on-farm and in the field. An additional 1,700 New Forest premises are to receive superfast broadband following a successful £1m bid to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Read more…

8 July – Superfast broadband lease of life for 25 rural communities in Devon & Somerset
Another 25 rural communities have been connected to superfast broadband as part of a £94 million programme. The Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) programme signed a deal with BT last year to deliver high-speed broadband to 90 per cent of premises in the two counties by the end of 2016. Read more…

7 July – First rural broadband cabinets installed
The installation of the first cabinets for the Isle of Wight’s multi-million pound rural superfast fibre broadband project is now underway. Once completed in Autumn 2015, the overall project will have enabled around 20,000 premises in the largely rural parts of the Island to access high speed broadband – making the Island one of the best connected areas in the UK. Read more…

1 July – Gigaclear speeds up broadband programme
Gigaclear, the UK telecoms group, is accelerating the pace of its rural broadband programme. Gigaclear provides broadband to rural villages, towns and business parks that have struggled to get high-speed broadband. It identifies gaps in the coverage being provided by BT to rural areas, which means it can connect specific villages in the countryside with its own fibre broadband. Read more…

1 July – Satellite broadband pilot scheme to take place in Devon and Somerset
A pilot scheme of high-speed satellite broadband is to take place in Devon and Somerset. Satellite broadband operator SES Broadband Services is to carry out a pilot scheme in Devon and Somerset as part of a government-funded push to bring faster internet speeds to the UK’s most rural communities. Read more…

Fieldwork in B4RN land

On the 9th and 10th of July we travelled up North to meet the people of B4RN, a community-owned fibre network in Lancashire providing future-proof full fibre connections to rural villages. The B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) network is totally inclusive: every property – no matter how remote – will have an opportunity to get a Fibre To The Home (FTTH) connection. However, it does depend completely on active involvement from the community to implement the infrastructure and reduce the costs. A core group of incredibly enthusiastic volunteers has done a tremendous job in setting this up. They have combined (technical) knowledge, dedication, and hard graft to make B4RN a success. Their parish-by-parish approach started in 2011 with the plan to deliver fibre to 8 communities, and has since been rolled out to 23 parishes, with more queuing up to also be included.

Our interviews with members from the B4RN management team show that an initiative like theirs needs to overcome a multitude of obstacles. One of the major obstacles is of course the financing of such an initiative (e.g. equipment, dark fibre lease, third party insurance). But the physical landscape also comes with plenty of challenges such as rocks, bogs, bridges, roads, and train tracks, while bad weather can make access with equipment into muddy fields almost impossible. However, all the effort does pay off. The villages that have gone live are now enjoying upload speeds unimaginable to most of us – rural or urban!

B4RN Current Internet speed at the Bridge House Tearooms in Wray

Village BYOD Evening
Besides interviewing experts we also visited the village of Dolphinholme where the fibre connection has just been introduced.  Both the BBC and the Telegraph report  how the villagers have taken matters into their own hands. Coincidently, an information evening was organised on the same day we were doing our fieldwork. The community had been invited to bring their own devices to the Village Hall to see what a superfast connection can do. Information was also given about how to set up VoIP phone service (using existing telephones), TV, and cameras for rural security applications. A second similar information meeting was scheduled for Saturday the 12th just before the Sheep Racing (we kid you not!)

sheep racing Poster on the door of Dolphinholme Village Hall

Show and Tell Day
When a community project is as successful as B4RN, it is only to be expected that other rural communities are keen to follow suit. To help them accomplish this, B4RN regularly organizes ‘Show and Tell’ workshops together with Emtelle to share knowledge and experience.

The meeting we attended attracted participants from all over the country eager to copy B4RN’s best practice.  Different speakers provided information about the financing of community-led projects, customer relations, product selection, and a hands-on product demonstration.  ‘Fibre blowing’, ‘splicing’, ‘fusion’, ‘ducts’, and ‘access chambers’ are all part of the vocabulary of B4RN volunteers and these words had cropped up throughout our interviews. The product demonstration helped us to better understand the actual meaning of these terms.

To illustrate everything that had been discussed during the workshop, we were taken on a field trip into the wilds of Lancashire to see the active B4RN installation (approx. 300 km of fibre has been laid so far). This field visit emphasized the scale of the operation and the enormous accomplishment of all the volunteers.


From top left – clockwise: 1. Fibre cables are covered with caution tape to stop anybody digging them up by mistake (e.g. while fencing or ploughing); 2. The workshop participants are shown B4RN installations; 3. The moveable maintenance ‘shed’ that allows people to work on the fibre distribution cabinets in all kinds of weather; and 4. Drums of duct waiting to be put in the ground.