Page last updated at 19:17 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:17 UK

A tale of two broadband villages

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News


Rory Cellan-Jones discovers a broadband boost for Cumbria

Cumbria is a microcosm of counties across the UK, many of which still have some "notspot" areas - defined as places that have no or below two megabits per second broadband.

Lindsey Annison has been campaigning for faster online connections for her rural community in Cumbria for over 20 years.

She is one of an estimated 15% of the UK population who cannot get speeds above 2Mbps.

The problem, a common one for rural communities, is that her village is just too far away from its local telephone exchange to offer the kind of speeds the government has pledged everyone will have by 2012.

"On a really good day I can get a 1Mbps connection but you can't do anything with it. I can't use Skype for example," she said.

The fact she can achieve even this is down to help she has got from a firm which specialises in getting more broadband out of lines that are a long way from telephone exchanges.

"Outlying farms can't get anything," she said.

Graphic of a house

Ofcom estimates that 15% of the population cannot get broadband above 2Mbps.

In Northern Ireland nearly a third of homes can't get 2Mbps and in Scotland over a quarter languish on slow speeds.

Cumbria has by no means been bypassed by the digital revolution. Last year the North West regional development agency spent £19m on a county-wide wireless network and running fibre to a deprived estate near Carlisle.

But, according to Ms Annison, it has been a failure.

"It hasn't made the slightest bit of difference. I haven't found anyone in Cumbria who is getting a connection off of that wireless network," she said.

This is disputed by the North West Development Agency (NWDA), which was responsible for laying the network.

It said that the network had benefitted around 40,000 businesses in the area as well as enabling consumers.

"Before, only 40% of Cumbria could get half a meg of broadband but now 96% can. People can get significantly better access, up to 2Mb in some instances," said Phil Southward of the NWDA.

Fibre moor

Daniel Heery
Daniel Heery has become a type of fibre warrior

The money could have been better spent on fibre, said Andrew Ferguson, editor of ThinkBroadband.

Fibre is expensive but there are ways of cutting costs.

"Community led approaches things like a farmer lending a day of time to dig trench can save a fortune. Alas, in a world of litigation and health and safety rules this may carry risks. They could damage an existing infrastructure, or cause an accident," he said.

Just 15 miles across the hills from Ms Annison, Daniel Heery is preparing his own DIY fibre project.

Locals Derek Snowden and Steven Ramsey are using their diggers to lay a four-mile trench between Alston and neighbouring Nenthead.

Into that trench will go ducting through which fibre optic cable will be blown, bringing 50Mbps broadband to the hills of Cumbria for the first time.

There are 1,000 homes in the area that could eventually benefit from the network although in the first instance just 20 houses will be connected by the end of the summer.

Customers will have to pay £100 to upgrade their current connection, which offers a wireless connection running at speeds of up to 2Mbps.

Long term prices have yet to be worked out although Mr Heery said the premium for the service "would not be astronomical".

Rural Alston, surrounded by serene hills full of grazing cows, is perhaps an unlikely location for a fibre revolution but FibreMoor, as the project has been dubbed, is likely to be a model for other rural communities desperate to get faster broadband.

"I think this type of community-led option will be the only option in rural areas. Local people can drive take-up levels. We have local people doing it and they will tell their mates and that kind of word-of-mouth will be vital," he said.

It hasn't been an easy road for the FibreMoor project. Plans to sign up local schools and a nearby hospital hit a brick wall.

"They haven't really been up for it. We explained that they could save money but these type of solutions are a bit more work than simply phoning up BT," he said.

Despite reluctance to hook up local hospitals, the NHS as an organisation is stumping up a percentage of the £80,000 cost of laying the network.

Virtual wards

Nurse examining a patient
Remote diagnostics will need fast broadband

As well as being at the forefront of the digital revolution, Cumbria is also one of 80 so-called Living Labs around Europe, offering a testbed for cutting edge telemedicine.

Researchers at Newcastle University are working on a pill which will have a camera attached to to beam back pictures of the body once swallowed. It may well be tested first in Alston once the fibre network is up and running

And along the road at Cockermouth, Mr Heery is involved in a so-called virtual wards project, offering monitoring devices to patients so that doctors can do remote diagnostics rather than keeping people in hospital after operations.

This currently relies on a standard broadband connection and the old-fashioned technology of the telephone.

He hopes Lord Carter sees the value of community-led broadband as a way to increase remote services as well as help fill in the broadband notspots dotted around the UK.

"We want to show that simply throwing money at the mobile operators isn't the best way to do it. My experience of mobile broadband is less than satisfactory and the idea of that being the panacea for Britain doesn't fill me with confidence," he said.

"Put fibre in and it solves the problem for the next 20 or 30 years," he added.

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