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How to be a Broadband Champion

March 1, 2011

By Carol Bowe, Vale of Mowbray Community Broadband

If you live in a community with either no broadband, or poor broadband, and you are not prepared to sit back and wait for BT to get round to upgrading your local exchange in 2015 or even later, this is what you can do about it.

You don’t have to be superhuman.  You don’t even have to be Superman or Superwoman!  You certainly don’t have to have three heads!  You just have to be determined to make a difference.

My own story starts in August 2010, when our very slow broadband went into an even greater decline.

We contacted our service provider.  They passed the problem to BT.  We had a string of BT engineers out.  The BT engineers explained that as long as we did have some connectivity, they were not allowed to spend more than one hour in attempting to resolve our problem.

There are a number of issues affecting Broadband speed and/or availability within our local community.  The first, and the one which is always blamed above all others, is the fact that we are approximately 9 km from the exchange.

We now know that there are three cables from the exchange in Northallerton, to the green cabinet in our village.  One of those cables is copper, and is the best quality, as far as any hopes of broadband are concerned.  The other two are aluminium.  They are poor quality, and are incapable of carrying broadband satisfactorily.  So, everybody in South Otterington or Newby Wiske, or outlying farms, who want broadband, are vying for ‘pairs’ on the copper cable.

There are insufficient working ‘pairs’ for everybody because the copper cable is so old, and virtually every property now has a landline telephone.

Having diversified from farming in 1999, we now run a caravan park on the original family farm.  We have had a website from very early days, and had dial-up internet before broadband became available.

As the popularity of the world wide web has spread, so has people’s use of the internet for doing anything and everything, including such diverse things as looking up the recipe for their favourite meal, or choosing where their next holiday is going to be spent.

Now, in the 21st Century, it is possible to book that holiday on-line, make a secure payment of the deposit on-line, and receive the confirmation of your booking by e-mail, minutes later. 

But we are lagging behind.  We can’t rely on our internet sufficiently to set up on-line bookings and secure payment.  Sometimes (as in August 2010, and again just last week), it can take as long as half an hour to open an e-mail with an attachment!  And then, to try to send an e-mail with a photo attachment ….  Well, I could sit at my computer for another half an hour, just waiting to ensure that the e-mail was ‘sent’, only to get a message saying that the server had ‘timed out’, purely because our broadband speed was so slow.

As we heard at the North Yorkshire Broadband Conference on Saturday, some businesses actually relocate, in desperation, to somewhere with improved broadband.  You cannot pick up a caravan park and transfer it 5 or 10 miles away to the nearest business park!

As a result of our abysmal broadband speeds in August, I started to look at other options.  Well, there aren’t many really.  I knew that the Country Landowners Association were backing rural broadband campaigns and discovered that it was possible to have satellite broadband installed with the benefit of a discount for CLA members.

I telephoned the satellite company, and they explained how their equipment worked, and that if we placed an order, it could be installed within a week.  I was all in favour of just going ahead with it.  However, the person I spoke to insisted on sending me their information leaflets before I made a decision.  That was his downfall!

Whilst I had to wait for the postman to bring the information the following day, I contacted a neighbouring business who I knew had used satellite broadband in the past and our website designer.  They were all of the same opinion: the latency would drive me mad.

Then I read an article in a local newspaper about NYnet and their pilot scheme at Newton under Rawcliffe. 

I Googled NYnet, found their website and sent an e-mail enquiring whether they could help out.

First of all, Julie Burton from NYnet sent me a general reply saying that they couldn’t help individuals, as they were not allowed to re-sell broadband. 

However, Julie passed my details to Nick Hall at CLANNET (an approved community internet service provider).  Nick initially e-mailed me, shortly before the end of August.  When I telephoned him, he was just going away on holiday, and as he was due to return, I was going to be away, so we left it until 12th September.

On 12th September, I spoke to Nick on the telephone.  He explained more about NYnet and CLANNET, and said that if I could get at least 50 expressions of interest from other people in the community, it might be possible to do something.

I composed a letter from myself to the residents of the surrounding villages – South Otterington, Newby Wiske, Thornton-le-Beans, Thornton-le-Street and Thornton-le-Moor – explaining who I was, where I lived and the problems we were experiencing with our broadband, and asked people to return an attached form with their name address and contact details if they were interested in trying to get ‘next generation’ broadband.  My husband, youngest daughter and I then delivered 400 copies of the letter to virtually every house in the above villages, and some of the outlying farms.

I received approximately 50 replies back very quickly.  Some people were so excited about the prospect of high speed broadband, that they telephoned me on the same day that they received the initial letter!

The next step was to arrange a public meeting.  I enquired about hiring the village halls in South Otterington and Thornton-le-Beans.  South Otterington were going to charge me about £50 for the hire of the hall, and there are only about four parking spaces.  Thornton-le-Beans was cheaper, but out on a limb.  Bearing in mind that I wanted people to attend the meeting from villages two to three miles away, I needed somewhere with a car park.

I approached the owner of the Black Swan Inn at Thornton-le-Moor.  She was agreeable to hold the meeting free of charge in the lounge/dining room of the pub on a Monday evening when they don’t usually have any or many bookings for evening meals.

The date was arranged, and another 400 notices were hand delivered to all the residents, as well as posters on village notice boards, informing them that the meeting was going to be held in the Black Swan, Thornton-le-Moor on 4th October 2010.

By this time, I had attended parish council meetings for each Parish to tell them of my campaign, and also e-mailed our MP, Anne MacIntosh, Bob Baker (District Councillor) and Neville Huxtable (County Councillor).  I had also attended a meeting at Thirsk Auction Mart, hosted by Anne MacIntosh for local farmers, where I had an opportunity to speak to her afterwards.

Julie Burton from NYnet kindly agreed to attend the public meeting in the Black Swan and to give a presentation, followed by Nick Hall from CLANNET.

I had absolutely no idea how many people would turn up for the meeting.  I was in fear and trepidation that there would only be Julie, Nick, my husband, my daughter and me there!

In fact, the room was packed out.  We tried to get people to sign-in, so that we had some idea of how many attended.  We had over 50 signatures, but there were also people there who didn’t sign-in on arrival.  I was absolutely delighted with the turnout. 

NYnet’s Managing Director, had received a letter of support from Anne MacIntosh, as well as a letter from John Moore (NYCC), who Neville Huxtable had contacted.

Basically, we were told that no more funding announcements were expected, at that moment in time, until at least February 2011, but that in the meantime, I should gather ‘really serious expressions of interest’ from local residents, so that when funding did become available we could make our case.

As a result of that meeting, and in the following weeks, I contacted everybody who had expressed initial interest, as well as everybody who had attended the public meeting.  Another couple of residents lent their weight and support to the campaign by contacting their near neighbours on more outlying farms, who had not been included in the first round of letters.

In November that momentous announcement was made that the government were going to allocate £350m to improving Broadband in North Yorkshire – and there was light at the end of the tunnel!

With 100 ‘really serious expressions of interest’, and the possibility of our scheme being the means of getting broadband to Appleton Wiske, a village at the other side of Northallerton from us, but who had applied for funding quite some time before us, our project was approved to go ahead as one of the next batch of five after the two North Yorkshire pilot schemes.

My little, local project, has become rather larger now.  Not only are we hoping to take next generation broadband into South Otterington, Newby Wiske, Thornton-le-Moor, Thornton-le-Beans, Thornton-le-Street and Appleton Wiske via Landmoth and Mount Grace.  The feasibility of connecting up with High Worsall, Deighton, Picton, Cotcliffe, Crosby, Nether Silton, Over Silton and Kepwick is now being considered as well.

We have an official title: Vale of Mowbray Community Broadband.  I felt that this accurately reflected the area that we were hoping to cover, and that it was something the local communities and residents could identify with.

The order has been placed with BT for South Otterington School’s fibre optic equipment to be upgraded.  That is due to happen towards the end of April 2011.  An appointment has been made for Nick Hall (CLANNET) to go into the school on 25th February, half term week, to install cabling and temporary equipment that will then facilitate some early installations of repeater nodes for the ‘backbone’ of the whole project. 

NYnet have agreed to the early release of surplus capacity at South Otterington School to get the scheme off the ground, before the BT school upgrade.

Potential subscribers have been returning their Registration Forms, indicating the level of service they wish to receive.  Provisional arrangements have been made to start installations.

All we are waiting for now, is Nick Hall and CLANNET to receive the contract from Yorkshire Forward and work can start in earnest on our project.

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