IN the 21st century, broadband is a utility in households as vital as gas, electricity and water. For those in cities and towns, receiving fast internet speeds is often taken for granted but in rural outposts, the “buffering” symbol is a common sight for frustrated customers. DAN ROBINSON looks at villages and hamlets’ efforts to get up to speed
BRITAIN boasts the widest coverage of superfast broadband of the five leading European economies, including France, Germany, Spain and Italy, but in Oxfordshire it is a different story.
Latest Ofcom figures for 2013 show 73 per cent of UK homes and businesses can get superfast speed of at least 24 megabits per second (mbps) through fibre-optic cables.
In Oxfordshire the figure is 69.5 per cent and some villages and hamlets can’t get broadband through underground cables or have speeds of less than 2mbps.
Oxfordshire County Council’s £25m “Better Broadband” scheme, working with BT, wants 90 per cent of county premises to have access to superfast broadband by 2015.
Remaining residents either have to wait for further council funding or take matters into their own hands.
Hugo Pickering founded the Cotswold Broadband Group in 2011 to help rural communities – in particular the Chipping Norton area – get a better service.
The group aims to fund superfast broadband.
It finds gaps in a map produced by the county council showing where it will provide coverage and works with parish councils to find a solution.
Mr Pickering said: “In hamlets and villages their speed can be between 0.5mbps to 2mbps but it’s just not acceptable to customers.’’ He believes one of the problems in securing funding is that it takes time for residents to sign up to superfast broadband because they are tied to other contracts with providers.
Mr Pickering said: “The need is there but it’s just about meeting that need.
“Seventy per cent want superfast broadband, that shows the demand is there.
“But if they are in a contract with an internet provider they can’t just step out of it so people shouldn’t be surprised that take-up rates don’t suddenly leap up. It takes a while for it to filter through.”
County council cabinet member for business and customers Nick Carter said filling the gap left by the broadband programme would depend on getting extra funding from Government grants.
And district councils will decide this summer how much money they will allocate of their own cash.
He said: “Oxfordshire is one of the most rural counties in the South East. That’s part of its charm and why people like to live and work in Oxfordshire. But on the other hand it does present a few challenges as a result.”
Residents in Northmoor, Bablock Hythe and Moreton, West Oxfordshire, got so fed up with slow broadband speeds that they put their heads together to get the service improved themselves.
They set up the Northmoor, Bablock Hythe and Moreton Broadband Group and received a £200,000 rural community broadband fund grant from the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs.
This has been match-funded by broadband provider Gigaclear, which will install the new fibre optic cables to 520 homes from a central cabinet in Northmoor. The work should finish in September, providing broadband speeds of up to 1gbps.
Group leader Graham Shelton, who is also chairman of Northmoor Parish Council, said villagers acted fast after they realised they would not be covered by BT and Oxfordshire County Council’s rural broadband scheme.
He said: “For us this is a revolution. It will put us in the first rank for broadband speed anywhere in Britain and we’re completely thrilled by it.
“It’s not just connecting up the rich people, we wanted to make sure everyone got connected so the fibre goes to every single property.”
BOSS BLAMES POOR CONNECTION
A POOR internet connection has been blamed for holding back a business in North Aston, North Oxfordshire.
Hamish Stoddart, 50, owns Peach Pubs and the main office is based in a converted barn.
His company receives its service from the Steeple Aston exchange, which is too far away for his company to receive a fast enough connection, just 6mbps.
Mr Stoddart said: “We’re right on the end of the line from the exchange.
“We’re a growing business with 16 pubs. Our work involves making graphics and videos and we’re being held back by slow internet.
“It’s slowed us down. I want to be doing video conferencing with the team and communicating in a modern way.’’
Mr Stoddart’s plan is to receive a wireless connection from a house in Deddington more than two miles away which has a fibre optic connection. It would involve installing special dishes on both buildings and a focused beam would transfer data.
NEW NETWORK VISION
THE failure of BT to provide blanket coverage has led to small businesses taking their place in rural areas that will not benefit from its roll-out programme.
Matthew Hare set up Harwell-based Gigaclear in 2010 and has either established superfast broadband or is working on schemes in 12 villages, including eight in Oxfordshire.
He said: “In rural areas you have a very large number of people who work at home and have businesses in villages, but you also have families who just want better broadband to do their homework or watch TV online.
“We are putting in a whole new network from scratch in rural areas. We’re not trying to fix the old, tired network, we’re trying to put in a solution for the next 50 years rather than put a plaster on it for the next three.”
Mr Hare believes many villagers were not aware what they had been missing out on until superfast broadband was installed in their homes.
He said: “How do you explain to someone how transforming it’s going to be if they have lived somewhere their whole life without electricity and you say ‘it’s really worth investing in electricity as it will let you do so many new things’?
“It’s the same with high-speed broadband. By itself it’s not useful as it’s just a bit of fibre but it’s what it lets you do.”
£500k DIY SCHEME PUT VILLAGE AHEAD OF THE REST
Last month, Appleton, south west of Oxford, was featured by The Sunday Times as one of the eight best places to live for broadband speed in the UK.
Villagers receive speeds of up to 100mbps but they were dogged with painfully slow internet speeds of about 1mbps until two years ago.
In 2010, residents from Appleton and neighbouring Eaton launched a campaign to get better broadband after BT said it had no plans to upgrade the Cumnor exchange that served the villages.
It took two years before they became among the first villages in the country to set up their own scheme with £500,000 funding from broadband provider Gigaclear.
About 175 out of 420 homes have since subscribed to superfast broadband.
It costs £37 per month for 50mbps but Appleton resident Graham Rose, who spearheaded the project, said he now saves £1,000 per year on his phone bill as he uses voiceover internet technology to make calls.
The 67-year-old said: “It’s totally changed our lives. We now view broadband as a utility like electricity because it’s so important. We’re so used to the speed of it that we’ve almost forgotten what it was like prior to September 2012.
“The biggest thing for me has been using voice-over telephony, which is only effective if you have a fast internet.”
Rural communities often suffer from broadband problems because homes are too far away from BT’s exchanges.
Until recently, homes have only been served by copper wiring connecting to roadside green cabinets.
The further away a house is from the cabinet, the slower the internet speed.
The telecommunications firm, contracted by the Government, is installing new fibre-enabled cabinets alongside them.
These will be connected to the nearest telephone exchange via fibre-optic cables laid in an underground duct.
The cabinets are connected to each other and broadband is delivered to homes and businesses through the existing copper wiring.
But for remote villages and hamlets already getting slow speeds because they are too far away from the cabinets, this will not make much difference. Instead, some are contracting providers to install new cabinets in the village.