Where’s Our Rural Broadband?


Yesterday started at 4am. That’s when I woke up and realised it was dark. What I didn’t realise was that it was 4am. The darkness and my inability to tell the time had the same cause. The radio alarm clock wasn’t on. So we’d had a power cut. Now that needed further exploration. Had there been a power cut, one that affected a fair area, or had ‘we’ had a power cut? By which I mean it was only us who were without electricity. When you’re rural both can happen. Or was it a trip-switch issue?

Given that by 5:30am we really needed electricity to milk with, it struck me that now was the time to start making enquiries. After all, if it was a genuine power cut I was going to have to contact the utility to find out what was going on. After making my way downstairs, finding the torch (always keep your torch in exactly the same place. It saves an immense amount of trouble when you’re looking for it in the dark), I went to investigate the trip-switch.

Now our house and buildings are on three separate trip-switches. So tripping something in the buildings doesn’t put the house off, and vice-versa. The house trip-switch had tripped and when I flicked it back, it tripped out again. The good news was that the buildings had electricity and so we were good to go for milking. The bad news was that the fridge and chest freezer didn’t have electricity.

I went round unplugging stuff and eventually came to the conclusion that whatever I took out, the switch still tripped. So I went back to bed to get another hour. With daylight I knew I had extension cables snaking through the house so that the freezer and fridge were plugged into parts of the house that were on a different trip.

When I awoke I phoned the electrician. He arrived and agreed that, yes, the trip-switch was kaput. So that had to be changed. All before 9am.

So yes, we’re used to electricity that needs to be cherished and pampered to ensure it keeps flowing.

Broadband is far worse. As I write our broadband has a download speed of 3.28Mbps. This is about as good as it gets at the moment, it can get below 1Mbps. To be fair it used to run at 4.5Mbps but I suspect more people working at home etc has strained the system and those of us on the periphery are paying for it. It’s so bad, two people had to phone me when I was in a Zoom meeting. Both told me that their phone rang once and just went to static. Luckily it didn’t drop me out of the meeting. But obviously I don’t have a camera on the desktop machine I use for doing Zoom. I mean, why would somebody with our line speed want a camera?

We talked to the engineers in an attempt to get our broadband improved. We do this reasonably regularly. They come out, tweak something, the speed goes over 4Mbps and over the next week erratically drops to average about 2Mbps. One of them suggested we try the Universal Service Obligation. To quote from Ofcom,

“From 20 March 2020, if you can’t get a download speed of 10 Mbit/s and an upload speed of 1 Mbit/s, you can request an upgraded connection. You can make this request to BT, or to KCOM if you live in the Hull area. You do not need to be an existing customer of BT or KCOM to apply.”

What will it cost?

Again, I quote. “If the cost of building or upgrading your share of the network connection is £3,400 or less, you won’t have to pay for this work to be done. If it will cost more than £3,400 to connect your home, and you still want a connection, you will have to pay the excess costs. If you want to do this, BT/ KCOM will conduct a survey and give you a quote within 60 days. You will pay the same price for your new broadband service as anyone else on the same package, and no more than £46.10 a month.”

So we contacted BT. They checked and we are eligible. So they promised to start the process.

A couple of days later I got this email:

“Hello Jim,

As we mentioned when we spoke with you, there isn’t currently a broadband network in your area that meets the Universal Service Obligation (USO) set by Ofcom (a line that can give you download speeds of 10Mbps or more).

However, we can build a new network to bring faster broadband to your door.

What will it cost?

We still need to find out whether there’s a cost involved. If there isn’t, we’ll be able to get started with building the new network.

If there is a cost involved, we’ll be in touch to let you know an estimated price range. It could take up to 30 days for us to find out, so please bear with us.”

That’s fair enough I thought. Indeed a couple of days later I got another email.

“Hello Jim,

We’ve now checked and there is a cost involved for building a new broadband network.

We’ll call you shortly to let you know the estimated price range and, if you’re still interested after that, we’ll get a more exact quote for you. You can also call us on the number below. We’ll keep your request open for 30 days.”

Anyway, we got a phone call, they had the first price for giving us 10Mbps broadband. Now given that Government is willing to chip in £3,400 I realised it wasn’t going to be cheap, but actually there are two other houses that are on the route and it struck me if we all went in on the project we could probably cover up to six or seven thousand pounds using government money. So I was perfectly happy to negotiate and help put a scheme together.

The price I was quoted was, “Between seventy and one hundred thousand pounds.”

Yes, between £70,000 and £100,000!

What are they doing, laying fibre direct from GCHQ just for us?

I pointed out I could buy a terraced house in our local town for less than that to use as an office and have better broadband than the 10Mbps minimum they were promising.

Anyway, they’re going to provide me with a detailed quote. This process can take up to 60 days. I await the result with interest. But frankly it looks as if we’re going to be on rubbish broadband for some years yet.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs). It’s available here.