The country switches on

Broadband is finally conquering rural areas – and just in time for many businesses, writes SA Mathieson

In 2003, the slow spread of rural broadband was a real issue for businesses in the countryside. It seemed that most people in Pinkney read the Telegraph or Mail, but they were kind enough to speak to me anyway. Another Guardian article on how telephone exchange-based broadband works here, with a 2012 update here.

Powered by article titled “The country switches on” was written by SA Mathieson, for The Guardian on Thursday 4th December 2003 10.56 UTC

Richard Bridge looks and speaks like a gentleman farmer. His workplace on the outskirts of Pinkney, a village in the north-west corner of Wiltshire, looks like a modern farm building.

Inside, however, the managing director of Wentworth Wooden Jigsaws is working flat out with his staff to complete orders for Christmas, with the firm’s computer-guided lasers carving giant, high-quality prints into hundreds of pieces.

Three weeks ago, Bridge installed a broadband internet connection, and it is already proving its worth. He produces a large print of Concorde in flight, just arrived from British Airways, and soon to be lasered into 750 pieces. “Without broadband, one hour and 10 minutes,” he says, referring to the download time through the firm’s two ISDN lines. “With broadband, 12 and a half minutes.”

He’s already cancelled one ISDN line – which costs £47.33 a month plus the cost of calls above £20. Broadband is much faster, and costs him £25 a month with no call charges. It’s an easy decision, but one that has only recently been available.

Pinkney got access to fast broadband internet connections on October 29, when BT upgraded the local telephone exchange at Sherston. When Bridge shows off a 104cm by 74cm high-quality print of a collage of family photos, sent over the internet and ready to be turned into 1,800 pieces, you realise why he needs broadband. “No question, we would have had to have considered lifting out of here,” he says, if the service had remained unavailable.

Next door, SureScan Imaging Services says its new broadband connection means it can bid for work when potential clients specify they want to receive their scans through a web site, something not possible with ISDN.

And Steve Killingbeck, a one-man graphic design concern in a nearby unit, has a similar story. “In the past six months, I would ask customers if they had ISDN, and they said no, it was too expensive, we’ve got broadband.” ISDN normally requires sender and recipient to be users. If businesses continue to ditch ISDN for broadband, it leaves those without access to broadband at an ever greater disadvantage.

Killingbeck installed broadband within days of the exchange upgrade – which came none too soon for Pinkney Park’s owner, Matilda Matthews. “It took six months of hard work,” she says. “But we were determined to get it, because we were determined not to lose our tenants.”

Matthews inherited Pinkney Park from her father. Although she and her husband still farm some of its 350 acres, their main income is from the business park, started in the 1980s and now employing about 130 people.

“Before we had the connection, some [tenants] were wobbling,” she says. “It was a major disadvantage to working in the countryside, and something needed to be done.” It has been done: as she speaks, a BT engineer is fitting a new phone line to carry broadband into the Matthews’ office in a converted stable block.

Last autumn, around 67% of the UK population had access to broadband through an economically realistic method. By this autumn, 80% of Britons had access, and trigger levels – customer demand levels required for an exchange upgrade, measured by registrations on a BT website – were available for a further 10%. Yesterday, BT converted its 2,000th exchange to the technology that provides broadband through normal copper phone lines, known as Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL). It was opened by shadow home secretary David Davis in his constituency of Howden in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

But on November 17, BT announced trigger levels for a further 2,300 exchanges, which would take coverage to 99.1% if pilots to extend the range of each exchange bear fruit. Thirty-two exchanges qualified for conversion immediately, and are waiting to be upgraded. BT says broadband could reach 100% of the UK, if industry and government pull together.

Broadband at home may be a luxury, but it is an increasingly popular one: recent figures from National Statistics, based on data from internet service providers, say that 19% of all UK internet connections are “permanent always-on” (primarily meaning broadband) compared with 8.3% a year ago. In numerical terms, permanent connections are up 130% year-on-year.

But for businesses, particularly those dealing with large documents, broadband is fast becoming a necessity. Brian Atherton, secretary to the chamber of commerce for Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, says: “What the chamber was being told by new businesses was, if you haven’t got broadband, we won’t come here.”

Ross was upgraded in July. But Atherton lives in Linton, covered by the Gorsley exchange, which last week became one of 23 more of the 2,300 to reach a newly set trigger level. Another 41 from the original list have also hit the trigger over the past two weeks.

Steven Gibson, who is campaigning for broadband in Dunoon in Argyll and Bute, echoes Atherton. “It’s something businesses throughout the UK have available to them. It’s critical for areas that are disadvantaged in other ways, such as trans port links and size of populations.”

Urban areas, where potential customers are thick on the ground, often have a choice, such as cable companies. A few areas of the UK, such as the Highland and Islands of Scotland (including Dunoon) and Cornwall, are allowed under European rules to subsidise businesses, and in both areas, state agencies have formed broadband programmes.

But for the rest of the country, BT’s ADSL service is the main hope. The exchanges are upgraded by BT Wholesale, but connections are sold by numerous internet service providers, which charge between £22.50 to £29.99 a month for a 512kbps service (kilobits per second, about 10 times faster than a dial-up modem). The cheaper options tend to charge for connection, whereas the pricier ones do not.

BT is testing wireless connections to tackle the fact that 512kbps ADSL only reaches 3.4 miles (5.5km) along a typical telephone wire, while 1Mbps (megabits per second) only works to a range of 2.5 miles (4km). Trials with wireless supplier Alvarion are providing 512kbps wireless connections to Porthleven in Cornwall and Ballingry in Fife. More are planned in Wales and at 1Mbps (megabits per second) in Northern Ireland.

And there are some special cases to sort out – some in the middle of cities. Aileen Boughen, of BT Wholesale, says many on the southern end of the Isle of Dogs in east London cannot get broadband, due to the length of wire to the Poplar exchange.

In Milton Keynes and around Gatwick, there are problems related to the location of exchanges, as developments are often a long way from the nearest exchange. Boughen says Milton Keynes’ troubles are exacerbated by the fact that telephone wires follow its grid pattern. “This means the cables go up and down and across, rather than in direct lines.” BT has teams working in all three areas.

One solution that could link more people and offer higher speeds involves installing ADSL equipment in BT’s green street cabinets, which act as local hubs between the customers and the exchanges.

But there are alternatives to BT’s ADSL, even in the countryside, and the government has supported pilots, including a wireless project in Buckfastleigh, Devon. In November, 1st Broadband announced a wireless broadband service for the area.

Gordon Adgey, who founded the Buckfastleigh Broadband Project, says this means their work is nearly done, as they have demonstrated that wireless is commercially viable. But he feels BT’s blanket of trigger levels could cause problems elsewhere. “This disincentivises community broadband projects. In a lot of people’s minds, when a trigger level is set, broadband has arrived.” But BT’s trigger level for Buckfastleigh is 500 customers from a town of just over 3,000 people.

Apart from the pilots, has the government been doing enough? The day before BT’s announcement, e-commerce minister Stephen Timms told an audience in Newcastle that every community should have access to broadband by the end of 2005.

Timms disagrees with direct subsidies for broadband, pointing out that these were not needed for mobile phone networks. His idea is to aggregate the state sector’s increasing demand for broadband – linking every school and GP surgery by 2006, for example – to convince suppliers to bring broadband to all areas.

Regional aggregation boards in each of England’s regional development authority areas are now in place, and will start work early in the new year. A pathfinder board in the east Midlands found that such aggregation could increase access from 67% of homes to 94%.

James Gray, shadow rural affairs minister and MP for North Wiltshire, which includes Pinkney, does not believe this is enough. “I don’t think they have the slightest interest in rural areas. I pay tribute to BT, but the government should have done more a great deal earlier.”

He adds that the trigger level registration scheme puts the onus on local people to campaign for broadband. It has worked in Pinkney: it looks like it is up to other areas to follow suit. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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