Superfast broadband – Mountfield’s experience

Superfast broadband has come to our neighbouring village of Mountfield – and has been greeted with less than resounding applause.  Experience has been mixed, with many  people being disappointed to find that they are outside the magic circle of those who are to get “superfast”, and some finding that they will not be offered the new service at all.  Here, as a guest post, is Richard Farhall’s recent report on Mountfield’s experience.

During week commencing 13 October the shiny new BT Infinity cabinet that had been taunting us for so many months on the A21 at Johns Cross had its status changed from ‘enabled’ to ‘accepting orders’.

With a download speed of 0.6Mbps until November last year, rising to a giddying 1.4Mbps following an upgrade to the Robertsbridge exchange – and with two people trying to work from home and an online gamer in the household, the long-anticipated ‘accepting orders’ flag on BT Openreach’s web page was a cause of great – but short-lived – excitement. For it would appear that the Parish of Mountfield is now divided between the super superfast broadband households and the ‘slow spot’ broadband households.

If you live very close to the cabinet it is a case of ‘Congratulations – you can get BT Infinity between 78-80Mbps!’ However, if you happen to live in Hoath Hill/Solomons Lane you will not get BT Infinity but you will get ‘Faster Broadband’ with a download speed of an estimated 11-17Mbps – I wouldn’t say no! Moving further out into the sticks, if you live in the immediate vicinity of the Village Hall it all starts to go pear-shaped – 2-3Mbps. I still wouldn’t say no! But if you reside after the Village Hall you’re stuffed – no faster broadband for you.

Why is this? Quite simply, the fibre necessary for BT Infinity starts at the Robertsbridge exchange and goes no further than the new John’s Cross cabinet. From there onwards the existing copper wire is used. As a general (national) guide, if your property is 1.5km (0.9 miles) along a length of copper wire, you are unlikely to benefit appreciably from the fibre laid from the exchange to you nearest cabinet. I am 2.9km (1.8 miles) from the cabinet.

I confess to feeling somewhat let down. In the lead up to the great East Sussex Rural Superfast Broadband roll-out we asked about the impact of distance from the nearest fibre-enabled cabinet and we were told that, yes, it would be a factor but no indications of likely speed could be given because of the number of variables involved. That said, it would appear that the 1.5km rule of thumb had been identified at this time – we just hadn’t picked up on it.

The £34m roll-out (funded by East Sussex County Council, BT and Central Government) kicked off this year and the County Council has stated that every property in East Sussex will be able to access a service of at least 2Mbps [the Government’s universal minimum target] by 2016 – and in many cases much faster. It estimates that by 2016 96% of properties will receive at least 24Mbps and 99% will be able to access high-speed fibre broadband.

With more and more of life happening online (whether we like it or not) where does this leave the 1% of us living – or trying to work – in broadband ‘slow spots’ (less than 2Mbps) or ‘not spots’ (no broadband at all)? The County Council states in these cases the project is committed to delivering as much as it can – including new technologies that may become available during the project’s lifetime if we are able to do so. Note all the get out clauses – including the use of ‘may’ and ‘if’!

Encouragingly, it goes on to say not spots and slow spots have been accounted for and form part of a project intervention area [I’ve no idea either]. We will look at alternative technologies (eg wireless and satellite). There is no mention of 3G, 4G or (the close) 5G mobile signals (necessary for mobile broadband) – presumably because there is absolutely no chance of ‘dispersed’ rural areas being able to access it because we are considered to be ‘unviable’. As we know, even a standard voice mobile signal can be absent or weak.

So what of wireless and satellite? Well, a wireless system needs a clear line of sight (ie no pesky trees in the way!) from the receiver on the outside of your house to the relay station – possibly the top of the nearest church. If there is no clear line of sight then smaller repeater relay masts have to be installed, which means securing landowner permissions – and possibly more cost.

Satellite tends to be expensive – both the hardware required and the monthly ISP charge – and because there is a signal delay involved online gamers hate it!

One can’t help but suspect there are many small pockets of ‘fibre resistance’ throughout the county and I would be astounded if the County Council manages to find tailored solutions for all of them by 31 December 2016 – and has it built enough into the budget to subsidise these more expensive bespoke broadband delivery systems? Or will it be the case that the (inconveniently-located) county bumpkin will be expected to pay?

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