BY JIM WEBSTER
Our broadband is less than sparkling. We have a maximum speed of 4 mbps because our farm in remote Cumbria is at the end of a long piece of copper. This copper is not getting any younger. For much of the last year we have been working with the BT Escalation team because they seem to be the only ones with the clout to get Openreach properly motivated. (At this point the trolls scream, “Get satellite broadband” to which I reply “No, many of us remote farmers cannot afford it”.)
Now about a month ago we had issues and the Escalation team got in touch with Openreach, and to be fair to Openreach, the engineer they sent out was a good one. She was, in the nicest meaning of the term, a real terrier. She started methodically by checking the first joint, even though it was testing OK to the online tests. As she moved some of the wires the entire joint dissolved into powder and she had to cut back to bare metal and reconnect it. With this done she proceeded to check every joint, with the wind and driving rain blasting across the area. She finally reported to Openreach (who in turn reported to the BT Escalation team) that they needed to replace 450m of copper cable.
Now this work was assessed and agreed by Openreach, but it’s not entirely in their hands as they needed to approach Cumbria Highways and get road closure notices and similar. So, we heard nothing more, and honestly didn’t expect to hear much as this process can, apparently, take six weeks. And to be fair, we had broadband. Admittedly it rarely got better than 2mbps but still, it was there.
Then at about 9:45am on the 14th December the broadband just disappeared. Our modem has shown a steady orange light ever since. Talking to neighbours, nobody else has lost their (admittedly pathetic) broadband, just us. We got in contact with the Escalation team, and they did tests and then got in touch with Openreach. ‘What was the problem, had somebody done something to a wire, perhaps with the re-cabling work starting early?’ Openreach has been strangely enigmatic. They eventually said that they had an engineer working on it, but that we wouldn’t see them because the fault wasn’t near us, the fault was nearer the exchange.
Anyway, on Thursday 15th, when it looked like it could be a while before Openreach achieved anything (or even told us what was happening) the Escalation Team suggested a dongle. Now BT partner with EE, and normally they’d just post out an EE pay as you go dongle. But there is no EE signal. But in the last year or so O2 have got an improved signal here from a mast barely half a mile away. So, the Escalation team said that they’d pay the first £30 of an O2 dongle and take things from there.
Armed with a notional £30 I wandered into the O2 shop in town. Now my phone, O2, pay as you go, had refused to connect earlier that day but I had managed to connect later. So, I asked the chap at O2 whether there were any problems. There had been no notifiable outages so with a significant glance at my phone he suggested that it might be showing its age. Not an unreasonable suggestion to be honest.
So we discussed dongles and he called up our postcode on the screen and said, “Now I know why your phone was having problems.”
The mast half a mile from us had failed totally on the morning of the 15th and there was no hope of 4G signal for us from O2. We could still get enough signal to talk on the phone using the attenuated signal from more distant masts, but he frankly refused to sell us a dongle on the not unreasonable grounds that it wouldn’t work. Not only that but there was no date for an engineer being assigned to the mast and in the week before Christmas, he didn’t think it was going to happen.
I confess that I have been impressed with the honesty and realism of both BT Escalation team and O2 employees at this point.
Anyway, the week went by. Because Openreach weren’t saying that the problem was one they would have to fix by installing 450m of new copper, there was an understandable reluctance to set up new systems that might not be in place when the old system suddenly snapped back into place and started working.
But still the Escalation team was getting nothing meaningful from Openreach. They were picking up hints from engineers’ reports that were copied to them, but these reports are by nature detailed. They’ll say we went to point x (which was a weblink the Escalation team didn’t have authority to open) and did this and this and it doesn’t appear to have worked.)
The Escalation team tried a new tack. ‘Why were they putting in copper? If you’re going to this sort of length why not just put in fibre? After all the cost of the copper you weren’t using would more than cover the cost of the fibre.
This too met with a lofty silence.
Finally, Christmas was bearing down on us. The Escalation team concluded that Openreach was not going to achieve anything before Christmas (even if they wanted to, could Cumbria Highways have the staff about to do the road closure orders before the holidays?) so they searched through other possibilities. Openreach finally said they couldn’t install an emergency wire. Then one of the Escalation team discovered that Vodafone seemed to have good coverage in our area. On Wednesday 21st December I walked into the Vodafone shop. All four staff were busy, but the store manager was obvious able to leave the two customers he was dealing with to ask me what I wanted. I explained. I told him the full story, including in it O2 and everything. He said he was delighted to help.
They had a pay as you go 90-day dongle. It was £50 but came with 12 gig.
Alas they didn’t have any in stock. He knew this because I was the second person who wanted one today.
Also, Argos who also carry them, didn’t have any in stock either, because he’d already asked for the previous potential customer.
But he could get one delivered by courier, next day, for under £7.
Except that even if I thought this was a wonderful deal and wanted it, he couldn’t take my order because their systems were down (which was why he could leave a customer to speak to me).
Had I considered that somebody, somewhere, really didn’t want me to have broadband?
Anyway, I got the shop phone number. Next morning, I talked to the Escalation team who checked with a supervisor and they said they would cover the £57.
I bought the dongle, plugged it into the computer and nothing happened.
So I phoned our Vodafone shop, and they gave me the number of tech support. It took ten minutes (literally, I timed it) to find the numbers etc that tech support needed to deal with me. After all I didn’t have the phone number of my dongle (and don’t have a Vodafone number). But anyway, with the sound of the muezzin reciting the call to prayer across the road from the call centre in Egypt, a very well-spoken young woman (she speaks better English than I do) worked out that whilst there was money on my sim card, nobody had turned it to data.
So now we have broadband, after a fashion.
My machine tells me there are 9mbps, but my lady wife’s laptop can only sometimes connect. So it’s OK but frankly if BT could get the landline back to 4mbps, it works better for both of us, as that travels better.
So, there you are, as news goes this has to fall into the ‘small earthquake somewhere remote, nobody important hurt’ category. But this is the real world – a real tale of rural broadband in the UK in 2023 that might be useful to some apparatchik in Westminster.
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.