Philip Banfield, a consultant obstetrician who lives in rural north Wales, has “bought broadband” four times but never been able to stream video, let alone conduct remote diagnoses.
“It’s been a complete nightmare. We’ve been left out on a limb,” he said of the state of internet access in his area.
Dr Banfield, a former head of the British Medical Association in Wales, said the poor connectivity in Abergele, his town in Denbighshire 40 miles west of Chester, had held back its economic development: the data speeds were too poor to support an e-commerce business that he and his wife Stephanie had wanted to start.
The region is one of many across Britain that remain on the wrong side of the “digital divide”: areas that are too sparsely populated to justify the cost that BT and Virgin Media would need to spend to upgrade the telecoms networks. Facing little alternative, many communities are taking matters into their own hands and coming up with ingenious and, crucially, affordable solutions.
Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, estimates that around 619,000 homes and businesses in the UK still cannot connect to a line offering speeds of 10 Megabits per second, enough to stream video. Around 110,000 of those could cost too much to upgrade, even under a government universal service obligation planned for next year.
This will give consumers the right to request a broadband connection offering speeds of at least 10Mbps. But the government will only cover the first £3,500 of the connection cost for businesses, or £1,500 for homes, meaning some consumers will either have to to make up the difference, choose to use an alternate service such as satellite or put up with the slow broadband speeds.
Rural broadband is back on the political agenda after Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to become prime minister, pledged via his column in The Daily Telegraph that every property in the country should be connected to a superfast broadband full-fibre line — offering ‘gigabit speeds’ by 2025. The telecoms industry has widely dismissed that pledge as overly ambitious, given it would cost between £15bn and £30bn to achieve.
Matt Yardley, an analyst with consultancy Analysys Mason, said that the expense of connecting extremely rural homes meant satellite was more likely to be pushed as a solution over full fibre. “It’s simply a question of cost,” he said. “Government could decide to do 100 per cent but it would be very expensive at the margin.”
Denis Fitzgerald and his wife Heather run a metrology laboratory, H&D Fitzgerald, in Tremeirchion, a village near Abergele. Mr Fitzgerald said he had been told by BT managers over the past two decades that he was lucky to even have a phone line given the remoteness of his business. “Sheep rubbing against the fence knocks it out as the copper lines were strung up on the barbed wire,” he said. “This is the third world.”
The industry is experimenting. Virgin Media, which said infrastructure construction can be “lengthy and complex”, has rarely strayed into the countryside with its cable network. But it has quietly connected 12 homes in Greenham in Berkshire to a gigabit service. The town has become a test bed for high-capacity wireless technology that could reduce the cost of connecting rural areas by 90 per cent and make more rural areas viable to connect.
Tests of some new types of network have hit teething problems. A government-backed trial network in Monmouthshire in Wales has not delivered the promised speeds and has proved patchy when the weather is inclement, according to ISPreview, an internet trade magazine.
Some communities have started to install their own networks, notably B4RN in Lancashire. Residents dug their own trenches for new cables rather than wait years for the telecoms companies to invest in full fibre or rely on expensive and sometimes patchy satellite broadband.
In Denbighshire, Dr Banfield finally bridged the digital divide through luck — demonstrating that in some areas getting broadband is still, in effect, a lottery.
In 2016, the Welsh government launched the £80m Superfast Cymru project to fill in “not spots” but it did not reach many remote areas. Airband, a rural broadband specialist, which participated in the programme, commissioned Rob Smith, one of its engineers, to expand its network deep into the countryside as long as costs were kept to a minimum.
“We can’t afford to put up a 20m [high] tower or pay thousands a year to use one like that,” he said pointing to the huge broadcast tower in a nearby valley that is leased by mobile companies to put antennas on.
So Mr Smith drove around the Welsh countryside looking for sites for a chain of makeshift towers. In Tremeirchion he spotted a wind turbine that the Fitzgeralds had put up on their property, struck a deal with the couple and attached transmitters to the wind turbine to connect it to other antennas. The chain of bespoke masts now runs for 79 miles, providing coverage to some of the most remote coastal parts of the UK.
Mr Smith’s fibre-to-the-wind turbine solution has not only delivered H&D Fitzgerald gigabit broadband speeds but it has also connected around 20 local residents to a decent internet service for the first time.
Dr Banfield is one of them. He has not only had Sky TV installed but, more significantly, said he could now monitor the heart rates of babies at the Glan Clwyd hospital seven miles from his home. That, he said, was the real benefit of closing the digital divide.