I am reporting here an article I originally published over on Howe Hill site, before Connect8 got going.
The south of the Chiltern ridge is blessed with several large transmitter and mobile phone masts. From the huge cold war complex at Stokenchurch to the police masts on Britwell Hill via the old MOD/USAF/RAF microwave relay site at Christmas Common and many in between. It’s an isolated rural area with steep hills which made it attractive to put transmitters there – this same geography though means modern civilian broadband is hard to come by. We are generally too far from the exchange on the plain. Many of the areas in which the masts sit are in the ‘last 5%’ to get broadband or have been written off by BT/Openreach. The masts though can form part of a modern broadband solution in several ways, with some lateral thinking:
the masts are usually (but not always) connected by underground cable to the phone network. This is how the radio signals that go to and from the mast connect to the network. These cables run in ‘ducts’ – hollow bits of pipe that the cable is fed through. These ducts can provide a route through which modern fibre can be laid to the place where the mast is. Then a telecoms company can provide a cabinet at the mast from which broadband can be relayed to isolated villages. Having a duct can vastly reduce the cost of a fibre connection as you don’t have to dig a trench.
masts often have their own telecoms cable which has spare capacity on it – a standard traditional telecoms cable has ’50 pairs’ of which the mast might use a dozen for signals to the mast. The rest is spare.
mast infrastructure was often installed especially for the masts and so does not touch the mainstream retail telecoms network that supplies phone and broadband to villages on long circuitous routes laid out in the 1960s. Masts can be on a far more direct route to the exchange
masts give a way of bringing broadband to the area through microwave – as the masts can be seen for miles broadband can be beamed to them wirelessly and then relayed locally on the normal wires, taking a few miles out of the route to the exchange. BT has done this for a few villages – including Northlew in Devon. You can have more than one service running on a mast – hence the proliferation of dishes and antenna in Christmas Common. It might also give an option for competitors to BT.
masts could also act as relay points for a small network on the Chiltern ridge and its dip slopes and valleys such as Pishill, towards Turville Heath etc. This could be something BT’s competitors could do too.
Why hasn’t this come up before?
Firstly, the masts aren’t a ‘consumer’ thing – they are a special ‘wholesale’ service from one telecoms company to another and just don’t enter the conventional ‘retail’ thinking when you ring up BT or Openreach. I had to ask a series of pointed questions to get information about the Britwell police masts from the County Council and Openreach that hadn’t registered in their thinking about how they could help us. Tackling the challenge of the last 5% needs some unconventional thinking that throws everything at the problem.
Secondly there are ownership complications – masts are often owned by a private company (not BT or Openreach) such as Arquiva who lets space on them to telecoms companies and broadcasters or, worse possibly owned by the MOD. So any use of them by the community would have to be negotiated. As the police own and still use the Britwell Hill masts it might be easier to do a community deal there. In some cases the mast owner might also own the ducts running to the exchange.
Thirdly the masts often have a military or national security legacy and don’t appear on the maps used by Openreach. This is a legacy issue dating back to the cold war – these masts aren’t secret any more – the police for instance will happily answer FOI requests about their pair of masts on Britwell Hill (as they have to me), which they put on their public asset register. There are plenty of conspiracy theorists who love talking about the probably redundant RAF microwave relay site in Christmas Common including people who have climbed it and these people and was mentioned in the House in 1955 etc etc. Also the ridge has line of sight to several active RAF bases including the colossal NSA station atRAF Croughton. But within BT culture there is a hang over of secrecy.
So overall there is lots of potential to use the masts to improve local broadband if we think imaginatively. But we need the help of OCC and BT/Openreach and their competitors better to understand what is connected to what.