Rural communities take the initiative on superfast broadband

Amidst the furore over the deployment of superfast broadband in remote rural areas, communities and businesses in Oxfordshire took action

Just 10 minutes from Oxford’s congested ring road and 20 minutes from the dreaming spires of one of the world’s top universities, you might expect to find an area at the vanguard of the digital revolution, reaping the benefits of superfast broadband.

Until recently, you would have been wrong.

The six villages of Beckley, Ellsfield, Horton-cum-Studley, Noke, Stanton St John and Woodeaton form an area known as Greater Otmoor.

Located just a few miles outside Oxford, in a picturesque world of rolling hills and honey-coloured cottages, the villages seem unlikely candidates to have been left behind in the race to superfast broadband.

But, according to local campaigner James Dolleymore, who represents Noke, the situation was dire.

“My phone line was so bad I could barely hear any callers,” he says. “BT came out and tested the line, and their engineer could only pick up Radio 4. My broadband was 0.17Mbps when working, so I started looking for a solution.”

The Otmoor group came together out of frustration at such cases. Talking to the campaigners in a local pub, it is clear the stakeholders feel angry and frustrated at being left behind by the government’s BDUK scheme, the money for which “vanished like a technological Marie Celeste” the minute things got complicated, says group member Jerry Bloomfield, of Stanton St John.

BDUK was a real red herring. If we’d just ignored it from the start, we’d have saved ourselves several months and a lot of trouble

James Plunkett, community stakeholder

“We were included in the county’s plans,” says James Plunkett, of Ellsfield, “but once they started auditing, they quickly realised how expensive it would get, so they kept the budget and started cutting the deliverables. BDUK was a real red herring. If we’d just ignored it from the start, we’d have saved ourselves several months and a lot of trouble.”

There is also a feeling of having been abandoned by BT, which rolled out a fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) solution to the villagers' near neighbours in Islip but went no further.

Enter Gigaclear, a locally based fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) business, whose founder and chief executive, Matthew Hare, is himself a ‘victim’ of rural broadband failures.

Hare set up the firm out of annoyance that local towns were getting 100Mbps services through cable TV deployments.

“It just got ridiculous,” he says. “I felt there was no willingness from BT to invest in serving this market.”

Gigaclear only competes against BT, and apart from one deployment supported by West Oxfordshire Council, is entirely privately funded.

Its model, of bringing fibre direct to everyone’s front garden – or the verge outside, if wanted – has already attracted the attention of the incumbent supplier.

Patrick Rooney, from Beckley, says: “BT made a lot of half-promises. They were very good at showing us what was wrong with Gigaclear, but would never commit to dates, costs and speeds themselves.”

The firm currently offers 1Gbps broadband as standard and 10Gbps on demand, and by 2020 hopes to offer 10Gbps as standard and 100Gbps on demand. It claims its network should last 50 years, possibly longer.

The Otmoor group, like any other, went through a lengthy qualification process to determine the area’s suitability for FTTP, says sales and marketing director Joe Frost.

“We get a lot of inquiries from all over, which we have to turn down,” he says. “This is an expensive business. We have spent over £7m on networks so far, so we must be careful that we’re spending money in the right places.”

Influencing factors include: the availability of a nearby backhaul connection into the national network; the size of the community – Gigaclear also requires 30% to buy into the scheme; local geography – granite bedrock makes things difficult, as do nearby motorways or railway lines; and who else is planning services there. 

If BT or Virgin Media is in the area, Gigaclear will de-prioritise it, says Frost, but adds: “We may very well come back later because FTTC is very much a stop-gap solution.

“The attitude of local councils helps us prioritise, too. It is nice to know that places where we plan to build won’t be overtaken by state aid. A lot of councils are now on board with this and realise there is not enough money in BDUK to address the problem, so are in-filling with people like us or wireless or satellite solutions.”

There is now a pipeline of 500 communities waiting for superfast, some of which might be groups of smaller communities, such as Otmoor.

In Otmoor, the diggers arrived just after Easter 2014 in the culmination of a process that began in 2012. The villagers expect to be online by July.

New lease of life for local business

A short drive from Otmoor – and again frustratingly close to Oxford itself – are the villages of Cumnor, Farmoor and Frilford, which were ‘fibred up’, in Gigaclear parlance, earlier this year.

Mark Greenwood, landlord of The Bear and Ragged Staff in Cumnor, has already been enjoying superfast FTTP.

“The speeds are quite remarkable, and to be frank it is costing me much less than I was paying for BT,” he says. “As a small hotelier, that’s very important.”

The Bear and Ragged Staff currently has nine guest rooms and most of its weekday clientele comprises business travellers.

But it does not provide services such as phones or Sky TV, so for Greenwood, fibre broadband has greatly improved the experience for his guests, who are now able to use Skype and Netflix on their own devices. He is now planning to almost double the size of the business's hotel side.

Besides superfast connectivity in pubs, other local businesses are reporting a changed world.

Paul Wightman runs a video production company called Indigo Dingo, which boasts corporate clients such as Alfa Romeo, The Guardian, Honda, Infiniti Red Bull Racing and Unilever.

Indigo Dingo handles many extremely large files – a four-minute promotional video at full broadcast spec clocks in at about 600MB. An hour-long reel in full HD can be 8GB, and the biggest single file it has ever dealt with topped one terabyte.

“I was getting about 2Mbps and that was the fastest connection in the village,” says Wightman. “There was nothing I could really do of meaningful use, other than emails. I either had to courier the files to London or drive them there myself. We got by ducking and diving and planning, but now I don’t have to do any of that.”

In the days before fibre, if one of Indigo Dingo's clients was demanding a change, Wightman would face the time-consuming chore of re-encoding and uploading the video file, but now the job can be completed and the file sent back while the client is still on the phone. He is also now able to investigate and try out cloud services, such as Dropbox.

“Things like that allow me to be more competitive and faster,” he says. “The upload speed is key for me, so the fact this is symmetric broadband is great. My ability to multi-task has increased massively and for a small organisation, that is really important.”

A highly technical video services firm is one thing to encounter in an area that, until a few months ago, had virtually unusable broadband, but a managed services provider is quite another.

Yet for years, Paddock IT Solutions, a local hosted services firm and Microsoft specialist run by Bruce Ballard, also had to muddle along.

The company started out six years ago with an ADSL connection shared between the business and Ballard’s family. To provide multiple phone lines, he then added ISDN 2. Paddock was getting speeds of about 6Mbps on the ADSL connection.

The firm specialises in remote tech support on services such as TeamViewer and LogMeIn, and runs an Exchange server. Ballard says: “It worked, but that was all it did.

“I wouldn’t say anything didn’t work until the day I bought an Apple TV, and it was an absolute nightmare.”

To top it all, Paddock had three remote workers connecting over a VPN from nearby Wantage and London, who were struggling to download files from the server back in Frilford.

I will join this service if I have to dig to the junction box with a spoon

Bruce Ballard, Paddock IT Solutions

At first it looked unlikely that Frilford would meet the criteria for a Gigaclear deployment, and in fact Ballard only found out about it when someone put a leaflet through a neighbour’s door.

“It was like someone had opened a window 20 years into the future, only not to Frilford,” said Ballard. “I said, I will join this service if I have to dig to the junction box with a spoon.”

After a local organisational effort comparable to that under way in Otmoor, the area began to go online with fibre at the end of 2013. Ballard has now cancelled his expensive ISDN and ADSL, and abandoned his planned purchase of an £8,000 leased line. He also owns three Apple TVs.

“My colleagues have noticed their VPN connections are now faster than their local broadband because they are not constrained by upstream bandwidth,” says Ballard. “Our remote support sessions work faster, so we do more of them.”

Clients are also noticing the difference, he says: “We hosted a client’s server for a month while he moved offices – it was faster for him and he ended up leaving it there for ages. Another client in automotive parts had terrible internet – he couldn’t send emails and his backup never worked properly. He thinks I’m wonderful now.”

Blitz spirit

But the effects of gigabit fibre extend beyond enhancing the experience for local villages, business owners and travellers.

The Otmoor campaigners have come through a lengthy battle to bring fibre to their homes and the camaraderie of the community organisation is already extending beyond their group.

Jerry Bloomfield explains: “We are meshing better together. We all have community websites, but now we are starting to link them together and give the area a bit more of an identity.”

James Dolleymore adds: “Gigaclear held a meeting two months ago in Beckley on what to do next – educating people on how to go from zero to a gigabit in a month – and it was so full, I had to go to the pub instead.”

For Paul Wightman, who also did his time knocking on doors, the benefits manifested themselves in a slightly different way.

“I would have been run out of the village at the end of a pitchfork if this hadn’t worked,” he says.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications