The Sunday Times on Cumbrian broadband

19:09 in News by Duncan Brown

The following article by Simon Kurs and featuring @fibrewarrior, @milesm and @rorystewart appeared in the Sunday Times last weekend:

You’d be hard pushed to find a place in Britain further removed from the hustle and bustle of the 21st century than the small market town of Alston, nestled high in the Cumbrian hills. Its winding cobbled streets, thatched inns and shops stuffed with local delicacies such as cumberland mustard and Alston cheese, have changed little in the 200 years since the poet William Wordsworth inhabited these parts.

But appearances can be deceptive. Though it may not seem so, the residents of this picturesque region are actually high-tech pioneers blazing a trail on the information superhighway.

Fed up with waiting for the government or BT to provide them with the ultra high-speed internet access that’s being rolled out in urban areas this year, the townspeople have set about doing it for themselves. Right now they are in the process of laying a network of fibreoptic cables that will give Alston broadband speeds of up to 100 megabits per second (Mbps) — that’s about 20 times quicker than the average speed in Britain at the moment, and on a par with the fastest available anywhere in Europe.

By any standards, it’s quite a DIY job. “You can sit on your hands and complain, or you can pick up your spade and start digging,” says Daniel Heery, 39, a local IT consultant who is the brains behind the project. And he’s not joking: to cut costs, much of the work is being done by local farmers who are using their tractors to dig the trenches for the cables. Soon, cottages that didn’t even have phone lines until recently will be able to download digital versions of the latest high-definition blockbusters in minutes.

At a time when about half of Britain’s rural population is still struggling with glacial broadband speeds it’s nothing short of extraordinary. But then again, when it comes to pioneering broadband ventures, the people of Alston have form. In 2002 they created Britain’s first broadband co-operative, called Cybermoor. Using funds from a government grant, they erected a network of 14 wi-fi transmitters around the town, nailed to cowsheds, chimneys and shops. This turned Alston into one big wi-fi zone that anyone in the local area could tap into simply by paying a monthly subscription.

Fast broadband is no longer a mere luxury. Millions of us now watch television through catch-up services such as the BBC’s iPlayer while living-room sets increasingly come with web access as standard (20% of all flatscreen TVs sold last year were internet-enabled, according to Futuresource Consulting, the industry analyst). Then there’s online gaming, and voice and video calls made over the internet using software such as Skype. A fast connection is also crucial for small businesses and schools. Yet while more than 90% of British households are now able to access some form of broadband, one in five users are still receiving speeds of 1Mbps or less.

The new superfast connections currently being rolled out across the country will do something to remedy this situation, replacing old-fashioned copper wires (which cause speeds to fall away dramatically the further a house is from the local telephone exchange) with high-capacity fibreoptic lines. BT’s service, called Infinity, promises speeds of up to 40Mbps while Virgin Media recently launched a 100Mbps service.

To enjoy these services, though, you need to live near a telephone exchange that can handle fibre optics, and to have fibreoptic cabling between the exchange and the green telephone cabinet on the street near your house. This cabling is hugely expensive to lay, and as a result, the Country Land and Business Association, which represents rural communities in England and Wales, estimates that nearly one in three households may never be able to persude a national telecoms company to install superfast broadband.

Hurrah, then, for the rural broadband pioneers who are doing it for themselves. “BT has said that it’s too technically challenging and too expensive to install high-speed broadband here themselves,” explains Heery. “Because we are fairly isolated and there aren’t that many of us here, it’s not a good business proposition. And that’s why we went for it ourselves.”

You could call it a manifestation of David Cameron’s big society (only without any political bluster coming from Westminster), and it’s happening across the land: from the village of Iwade in Kent to Lyddington in Rutland. In Great Asby in Cumbria, for instance, the residents were in a similar situation to those of Alston: the conventional means of getting a broadband connection (by cable or ADSL over a copper wire phone network from a provider such as BT) was not available.

Then, in 2005, a local landscape architect came up with a solution. He discovered that the local council had provided a fast fibreoptic connection for a school. He secured permission from the council to tap into this feed and distribute it around the town using a network of wi-fi transmitters.

“We had seven wireless devices, called ‘mesh boxes’, around the village,” says Miles Mandelson, chairman of Great Asby Broadband and brother of Peter, the former Labour cabinet minister, “including one on a tree in a field that was solar and wind-powered. The church mesh box was installed by a steeplejack who climbed up to the bell tower using ladders. It cost about £7,000 to install that network and we benefited from a grant from the Cumbria Rural Infrastructure Support Programme. The range of the network was about 2 kilometres.”

So can any village do this? Yes, according to Mandelson. “But there are two provisos. There needs to be affordable ‘backhaul’ — the high-speed internet feed delivered by fibreoptic cable — and the geography of the community must allow sufficient line of sight between wireless devices for a substantial body of subscribers to get connected. The costly alternative is to lay fibre optics to each household.”

Although many rural towns do not have a nearby public exchange capable of supporting high-speed internet, there is, as Mandelson points out, often a public building such as a school or a library that will have a fibreoptic line.

Find out who owns it (the local council, for instance) and see if you can rent some of the bandwidth. In Alston they pay for a high-speed internet connection that is beamed to a hub in the town via a microwave link from Prudhoe in Northumberland, about 35 miles away. The fibreoptic cables residents are now laying will deliver the internet to their homes.

Miles network cost This doesn’t come cheap, though. Both Great Asby and Alston relied on grants to purchase the infrastructure needed to set up their networks, including wi-fi transmitters and a server (costing £2,000) to run the network. When Great Asby broadband recently upgraded its network, purchasing better-quality wi-fi transmitters that can handle speeds of up to 50Mbps, it got an extra £27,000 from the Rural Development Programme for England that covered 60% of the cost.

The high-powered wi-fi transmitters cost from £3,000 each, and although the government has ring-fenced £530m for rural broadband provision, how quickly that money will become available or how it will be spent is unclear.

Heery recommends heading to the website of the Independent Networks Cooperative Association ( This body has been created to support “next generation” superfast broadband projects across Britain and is the place to go for details on how to get started, as well as potential options for funding.

Mandelson’s first £7,000 You’re also going to need subscribers. Without enough of them, there won’t be the money to pay for the upkeep of the service and for upgrades. Alston has around 350 at the moment. Heery suggests canvassing local opinion to see what demand there is and how much people are willing to pay. Talk to local businesses and contractors, too, as they will be able to do the work for far less than BT, say, especially when it comes to laying the fibreoptic cables.

“The problem isn’t so much an engineering one — it’s pricing,” says Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, where Great Asby and Alston are situated. “We were able to stop BT charging greenfield connection costs for digging trenches by doing it ourselves. That’s difficult for companies to ask of farmers but easy for communities to ask its members — landowners feel like they’re helping a neighbour. Get it right and costs come right down.”


  • If there is not a fibre-enabled telephone exchange nearby, you’ll need to find an alternative highspeed connection. In Alston, before upgrading to a new system, the town rented bandwidth from a local school. The annual cost of a 5Mbps connection was £10,000.
  • You’ll need a server to manage the network, at around £2,000. n Other costs include technical support for the service — expect to pay up to £1,000 a month.
  • Wi-fi transmitters cost between £3,000 and £10,000 each (including setup costs). In Alston, a network of 14 transmitters serves an area of 25 square miles. n Alternatively, use fibreoptic cables to distribute the broadband. Using local contractors, the cost of laying the cable is typically between £5 and £125 a metre — more expensive than wi-fi but it will give higher broadband speeds. n Alston is upgrading from wi-fi transmitters to fibre optics. To serve the 25 square miles around Alston will require about 8,000 metres of cabling.

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