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Want rural broadband? Help yourself; it’s far quicker

19 May 2010

Living in rural England offers huge benefits, but for the privilege of living the ‘Escape to the Country’ lifestyle often dreamt of by city folk, the inhabitants of rural England pay the price in terms of limited mobile connectivity and broadband access. With the growth of e-commerce in the UK, is it time for villages to take rural broadband into their own hands, and prove that there is, indeed, a future for connectivity in the countryside?

Despite government assurance that 90% of the country can expect next generation (20Mb/s) broadband by 2017, there are still around 1,000 villages across the UK with no broadband access at all. Even in the commuter belt of Kent only a small percentage of the population receives a good level of access – compared with 8Mb/s in the Amazon rainforest!

For many communities, managing on unfeasibly low speeds makes it impossible to shop on leading auction sites or utilise online banking, let alone bolstering local economy by running a business or other forms of home working that could offer a financial lifeline in rural areas.

As business and government bodies attempt to streamline traditional form-filling and shopping, everything - from taxing a car to registering your child for school - is encouraged to be completed in the virtual world. In villages where a weekly shop may now involve a 52-mile round trip to a supermarket rather than that rapidly diminishing option - a walk to a thriving community store, there would be both financial and environmental benefits to being able to shop online.
 
Farming communities, in particular, are finding it increasingly difficult to balance what is an already demanding work schedule with the ‘e-red tape’ surrounding everyday activities, with fears that the amount of administration that has to be done online will continue to increase. Dairy farmers, for example, can no longer order medication for their stock over the telephone; it all has to be paper-trailed online. And having to take time out of a busy day to travel to a library just to perform the same task that used to take a five minute phone call is something that every busy farmer could do without.

With the virtual world taking over so much of real life, rural communities are starting to suffer from serious financial and social constraints. House prices are falling and younger families are moving out of the villages they have lived in for generations to keep up to speed with the pace of modern online living. There is no denying, that the world has become a much smaller, faster and more demanding place to live, with so much being available immediately online. The UK’s social divides that were once based on geography and industry seem now to be shifting more to the availability of fibre cabling.

The very fact that the government is proposing to levy an annual 50p per household landline tax to roll out next generation services over the next seven years, shows just how serious the situation is for rural England; but does it have to be that way? Gloucestershire telecoms specialist Horsebridge Network systems and residents of the Devonshire village of Northlew, have already proven otherwise.

Being left in the ‘dark ages’ in a time of e-commerce and home entertainment, was killing this village on the outskirts of Okehampton, along with its once thriving community. More and more everyday tasks were being moved from local post offices and businesses and replaced with online alternatives to which they had no access. So, in a bid to resolve the situation before village life totally collapsed, residents and the parish council took it upon themselves to find a solution, and in 2008, local businessman Chris Marson established the Northlew Community Broadband Project.

“The Government wants every household in Britain to receive a 2Mb/s broadband service by 2012,” says Chris. “But currently up to 20% of broadband lines in the South West receive less than 2Mb/s.We decided to find out exactly how difficult it would be to service the village and contacted the directorate of a number of suppliers and operators, including BT chief executive, Ian Livingstone, to try and implement a viable solution.”

As is the case for most UK villages in mobile and Internet ‘dead zones’, the costs and logistics associated with the provision of fibre optic cables were simply not viable for large telecoms operators. BT did suggest the possibility of installing a point-to-point microwave link from a local exchange to boost the backhaul signal into the village, but how this signal was to be redistributed to end users remained unresolved.

Chris Marson researched various options for this ‘last mile’ issue. His investigations uncovered wireless, broadband products used mainly in the US but now offered in the UK by Horsebridge Network Systems. Horsebridge currently supplies customers ranging from Vodafone to the MoD who provide wireless backhaul and broadband access in the remotest of locations, from the Highlands of Scotland to military deployments worldwide. Horsebridge took up the challenge and set about finding a workable and financially viable solution to Northlew’s broadband problems.

The company designed a multi-point, outdoor radio system, radiating from the spire of Northlew village church and offering the community an expandable broadband capacity of up 2Mb/s per user. Residents were offered the opportunity to sign up to the service and receive the wireless signal via a reception plate attached to the side of their property. This relatively simple installation transformed the lives of local subscribers by giving them access, not only to on-line entertainment and communications, but also to business opportunities that had previously been unavailable to them.

This link to the wider business community is essential for rural communities – particularly in areas where employment is low or based on seasonally fluctuating factors such as tourism and farming. “A fast internet connection is absolutely essential for rural businesses and communities” says Councillor William Mumford of Devon County Council “and it’s vital for the future of our local economy.”

From this initial project, which has broken new ground in terms of rural connectivity the Northlew Community Broadband Project in consultation with Horsebridge Network Systems has formed ‘Westcoast Broadband’ with Chris Marson as its managing director. “Broadband is now an essential part of living in today’s modern society” says Horsebridge head of sales and marketing, Craig Newton. He confirms his company’s commitment to ensuring that no area of the country is made second class because of its lack of connectivity.”

Internet service provider Westcoast now focuses on bringing broadband to both rural communities and inaccessible areas such as holiday parks, golf clubs and UK military bases. It is able to guide communities through the process of gaining funding and planning permission whilst liaising with network service providers through its links within the industry.

“For those who have good broadband access it’s hard to appreciate just how difficult life would be without it,” Chris Marson reminds us.“It’s become such a part of our everyday existence and many businesses assume that everyone is online when, in reality, many communities have been left behind. Adverts and letter-heading no longer direct us to addresses or telephone numbers, but to websites and email; we have become reliant upon it as a tool in the same way that we can no longer envisage a world without electricity.”

The possibilities for this radio system, now commonly known as ‘the Horsebridge Link’ are not limited to villages, it can be utilised anywhere that needs an extra boost to mobile or broadband services, from college campuses to oil rigs, golf clubs to remote hotels and even for events such as Glastonbury Festival and the Cheltenham Gold Cup Festival, which might require only temporary access, once a year.

Learn more about rural broadband connectivity and discover what hardware is available by visiting http://www.westcoastbroadband.net/ and http://www.horsebridge.net/.

Les Hunt
Editor


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