For some of our communities in Connect8 standard BT broadband might never be the answer – no matter how long we wait. Rural, sparsely populated areas like some of the Chiltern escarpment and outlying villages face physical challenges that BT’s broadband over phonelines will always find it hard to overcome. There are other technologies we need to explore as part of the cCnnect8 campaign to give us a chance of getting decent broadband at all and a path to higher speeds in the future.
Problems with BT’s phone line technology and broadband
BT broadband relies on a long wire from the telephone exchange to your house. The broadband signal fades as the wire gets longer, until it fails altogether at about 2.5 miles. It’s the same laws of physics that mean you can’t power an electric lawnmower by plugging together five long extension leads – as the line gets longer the voltage drops off until the lawnmower won’t work. In the 1960s and 1970s when most of our houses were put on the phone, the line was connected on a long circuitous walk and villages were daisy-chained together, increasing the distance to the exchange. Some are literally at the end of the line.
I am 2.5 miles from Watlington telephone exchange at the end of the line but the phone line goes on a circuitous route and I barely get any broadband. To counteract this fundamental problem BT has to put expensive bits of kit in the line that either create a shortcut to the exchange or lay some optical fibre (which doesn’t have this problem) or find some other way to get the broadband signal here. All these options are expensive – to continue the lawnmower analogy this is like digging up the lawn to put in a new socket so you don’t need the extension leads – rather messy, time consuming and expensive. And BT has said it won’t do it for us.
More powerful broadband – 20mb/s and above makes the situation worse because the higher bandwidth signal doesn’t travel as far. And solutions are more expensive.
Tress, hedges, water
Other rural issues make BT broadband hard. In the Chilterns we also have the problem of lines lost in trees and hedges – vegetation that has grown up since the 1970s. The constant friction of line on tree branch wears away insulation, water gets in and the signal quality goes down – if you have a ‘faint’ phone line or occasionally hear ‘fax’ noises or whistling on the line then this is often a cause. BT and Openreach stopped maintaining trees and hedges under their lines many years ago and require fairly forceful encouragement to tackle this issue. Broadband signals are particularly sensitive to this sort of interference – it adds to the distance problem and cause severe problems even if you are close to the exchange. My own phone line is completely invisible in a vast hedge several fields away and BT can’t even deliver me a line with a digital signal of any sort on it.
There is also a sense that around us BT/Openreach rural telecoms equipment the lines connect to in cabinets and stuck to telegraph poles exposed to the severe weather is generally dilapidated. The same economics that make BT/Openreach unwilling to invest in commercial broadband in our area has led them to neglect their kit, or prioritise urban equipment over our rural lines. One junction box near us on Howe Hill is completely full and can’t have any new lines added to it. In an ideal world it would be upgraded, but there seems to be no move to do so. Badly maintained, corroded kit can add to the problems of getting modern broadband.
All in all for some rural communities, hamlets, farm businesses or houses this means we may never get modern broadband down the phone line. What are the other options? Are there other companies who could help using different technology? There are companies out there who can help using other technologies than a 1960s bit of wire – and indeed so can BT if it is minded to – this will be the subject of my next blog post.