First bit of new local broadband network goes live – can you help?

Good news for local broadband – the first bit of the Village Networks broadband for our hills and valleys has gone live.  We hope to deliver a 20mbs service to people in Stonor around the end of November and Russells Water and Britwell Hill in December.  I explain how below in a construction update.  We now need some help from local people.

Are you an accountant?
We have two offers to cash flow the start up phase so work can go ahead.  We have set up a company limited by guarantee ‘Connecteight Limited’ (the structure often used by sports etc clubs for non-profit endeavours) to receive funds.  We are seeking help from a local accountant on the best way to manage this, VAT etc.  One of those things that is easy if you are expert, but baffling if not.  We can pay someone but wondered if there was a volunteer from the local population.  Please drop me a line
Construction update

Further to my blog post of 27 September  SODC have confirmed that the little pole in the deer park does not need planning permission and Historic England have said that’s ok with them.  The fibre to Stonor Park has now been turned on (‘lit’ as they say) and fibre and power will be run up the hill in w/c 7 November.   From the deer park pole Village Networks plan to send the signal down into Stonor Village to a prominent building and then relay it along the village from there to individual houses.  If you have such a building (a barn say or tall house with a decent view along the village), please get in touch.
We are waiting for the final paperwork from the police to put equipment onto their Britwell Hill antennas, from where Village Networks will relay the signal to local communities.

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Broadband running by Xmas…..

connect8 phase one mapWe are preparing to start work on Connect8  broadband for local people and Village Networks will have it running in several locations by Xmas.  Here’s the plan, subject to one or two caveats:

Stonor Park has an unused optical fibre connection to the Internet.  Village Networks are ‘relighting’ this to provide a 1Gb connection to the Internet, known as ‘backhaul’.  This is sufficient to provide excellent broadband to Stonor House and offices and the local community.  We are grateful to William Stonor and his team for alerting us to this fibre.

By kind permission of William Stonor and family VN will send a broadband signal to the top of a hill in the deer park overlooking Stonor where they will locate a 1.8 metre (5’11”) high scaffold pole or fence post amidst a clump of saplings (approximately here) with a pair of small aerials.  From there the signal will be sent into Stonor village and up to the Thames Valley Police radio masts at Britwell Hill.

From Britwell Hill the signal can be transmitted to local communities (here’s our earlier now slightly dated article on how it works).  Each community or clump of houses will have a central ‘node’ that can see the Britwell Hill masts and then relays the signal by radio around local houses.  A node is about the size of a dinner plate (now using Mimosa kit, which can be painted).  Russell’s Water is lining up to be the first node with energetic support from Ian Beecher-Jones, others who want to get going should let us know.

The subscriber tariff will begin at £40/month inc VAT for up to 24 Mbs download /2Mbps upload unlimited service. Business subscribers: up to 24/12 unlimited, 24hr on-site support, £75/month. Made-to-measure service for higher bandwidths where available, priced to suit.  BT Superfast unlimited is £38.99 a month including line rental.  There isn’t a line rental with the Village Networks product and you can run your phone over it, ditching the BT line.  It should also be possible to run a mobile device like Vodafone Suresignal over the broadband to improve radically your mobile reception.

We hope to get installation in each household subsidised by a voucher from the government (BDUK) and are wading through their process.  For those currently struggling on regular DSL this service will be like night and day.  The expense is well worthwhile when one considers the time and frustration saved and the number of expensive journeys reduced through better online connection.

We are working through three steps to get work started:

  • checking that the small pole does not need planning permission.  In our view it is a de-minimis, practically invisible item of telecommunications infrastructure of great community value.  We have the support of the local parish council and are talking to SODC case officers.
  • frequency clearance with OFCOM for Britwell Hill and final paper work with TVP.  TVP have been tremendously helpful but their process is long winded and we hope we can get this wrapped up quickly.
  • fund raising.  The combination of radio technology, Stonor Park making a contribution in kind, TVP helping us out and a local small business makes this a very inexpensive way of putting in broadband.  We are setting up a company limited by guarantee (the structure often used by sports clubs, local community ventures) to raise and hold funds then disburse them to Village Networks.   This is the approach used successfully in Hambleden for community broadband.  Our first target is to raise £10,000 to get the early work done at Stonor and Britwell Hill.  I shall write more on fundraising but  please drop me a line with any offers –

For some of course, BT is coming over the next couple of years with backing from OCC, albeit with all the uncertainties and caveats that came out at the Russell’s Water village hall meeting.   And not everyone will get BT superfast in the end, we think. Here’s a chance though to get a good service quickly working with local people and over which we have some control, supported  by local engineers from Aylesbury.  And of course it’s exactly what Norman Tebbit had in mind when he privatised BT – one local competitor that keeps everyone on their toes.

A bit like Strictly, this project has slow, slow, quick, quick, slow phases.  We are now in a quick, quick phase and shall be writing more in the near future.  We are always looking for volunteers – even if it is just to post leaflets, spread the word or professional services support.

Posted in Britwell Hill, Britwell Salome, Christmas Common, Cookley Green, Cuxham, Greenfield, Howe Hill, Little Stoke, Maidensgrove, Northend, Park Corner, Pishill with Stonor, Pyrton, Russells Water, Swyncombe, Turville Heath | Tagged , | Leave a comment

BT superfast community meeting read out

About 72 people attended the meeting in Russell’s Water village hall last week to hear from BT and Oxfordshire County Council on their plans for broadband roll out.  I am grateful to Craig, Mark and Stacey for coming along and doing their best to update us.  And to Ian and the village hall team.

It’s fair to say many people found it quite confusing.  There’s a general sense that BT, with OCC money is doing something, but for the majority it is unclear as to what and when. A few people went away clearer that eventually they will get something, others far from clear. A good number of people discovered that not only did they not know what speeds they might get and when, but nor did BT.

What did we learn?
Planning for BT broadband is only at a high level in our area and they haven’t yet got to the detail of which houses. Coverage is supposed to hit 70% of our houses (post code list here).

In many cases we shall only know which specific houses within a postcode area will get better or superfast broadband AFTER BT have done all the work and the resident runs a speed test.

Right now, the best way to check when your house will get connected is to go to the broadband post code checker map on the Better Broadband Oxfordshire website. This is only accurate however to partial postcodes – it doesn’t yet drill down to your specific post code.  If you enter your post code LEAVING OFF the last letter, that’s as accurate as it gets. In rural areas with long line lengths this isn’t terribly helpful – eg RG9 6H covers the whole of the Stonor Valley, where there will clearly be differing timing and outcomes.

Timings are uncertain unless a specific short term date is given. Detailed forward planning is published six months ahead of the date it will happen. Check the post code checker every quarter, noting caveats above.

BT work is scheduled to be complete by end December 2017. Having worked myself on many projects I am always sceptical of ‘end of calendar year’ deadlines. This sort of roll-out is staff dependent and you lose many on any roster over Xmas. I’d expect this to over run – although that it better than it being cut off at year end if unfinished.

The green cabinets we see being notified through planning and starting to pop up only partially inform coverage and we don’t have a full picture yet (see six month planning cycles above). Some houses are not connected to cabinets at all but direct to the exchange (known as a DEL line) so they won’t benefit from cabinets near them which might be serving other communities.  Conversely just because a cabinet isn’t planned for your area yet doesn’t mean you won’t get superfast – some rearranging of lines might go on or a new cabinet that could help instead. There are other structures (cabinets etc) being planned that have not yet come forward through the planning system – see this list presented at the meeting which BT/OCC are mapping.

OCC and BT are working on a better map that explains inconsistencies in the current situation – eg Stonor village is listed in OCC’s white list of postcodes as not due for coverage, yet it will have two cabinets. We expect to hear from them shortly as this list of new structures is decoded so we can grasp it. I have mapped the ‘white’ postcodes that OCC does not forecast the current wave of BT investment reaching or as i understand it less than 50% of the houses there will get it – map – the circles map I circulated at the meeting is here.

People corresponding with Craig Bower the OCC programme manager seem to have had good results. Even if it only confirms the murk.

Elsewhere, in Bucks Rick Scannell of North End has learned that they have rectified their problems and now have a plan which is slowly emerging into the public domain. I have asked Bucks for all the Connect8 postcodes and will publish that here.

Connect8 is working with Village Networks on a wireless broadband project to fill in the gaps left by BT and give people who want it a choice. Following the BT meeting we are optimistic about launching this later in 2016 providing 10-20 Mb/s. We shall have more news on this in the next few weeks as our planning firms up.   We have put the folk from Little Stoke in touch with Countryside Broadband who run a similar service in that direction.

Posted in Britwell Hill, Britwell Salome, Christmas Common, Cookley Green, Cuxham, Greenfield, Howe Hill, Little Stoke, Maidensgrove, Northend, Park Corner, Pishill with Stonor, Pyrton, Russells Water, Swyncombe, Turville Heath, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Christmas Common in summer…..

Christmas Common Cabinet 1

At last it has arrived! The long awaited cabinet is just awaiting connection and subsequent enabling and we can feel pleased to have achieved this significant milestone.

We await feedback on what benefits are felt and fast broadband will give our settlements a real boost in connectivity and a real plus in terms of sustainability – important factors in all respects for business and home users and property values

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Broadband update – approaching a complete solution?

We are fast approaching a complete local solution for high speed broadband.  On Tuesday BT will present in Russell’s Water village hall on the extent and timing of their plans for super fast broadband down the phone line.  It’s a 1930 start – all welcome, presentation and questions, I shall chair it with Peter. Their work is primarily subsidised by Oxfordshire County Council.  BT are contracted to reach 70% of local homes. On Tuesday we hope to hear more on which homes precisely and when.  We can now see plans for BT green cabinets in Stonor (x2), Maidensgrove (see second half of document at link), Lower Greenfield, Greenfield Farm, Christmas Common, Swyncombe, PyrtonHowe Road and Park Corner.  Broadly speaking customers should start being connected this Autumn, continuing to the end of 2017.

BT declaring the 70% that they will connect using subsidy creates the space for Village Networks to target the remaining 30% using radio technology at 20-30 Mb/s.  Thanks to local people we have now found a source of high speed connection to the internet (backhaul) at Stonor Park by reactivating an optical fibre and have another option for backhaul from Thame.  Thames Valley Police have now agreed in principle for Village Networks to use their masts on Britwell Hill as a distribution point. Broadly speaking if you are more than one kilometre from a cabinet the Village Networks solution should work better for you, because it uses radio not copper lines. You can have a phone on the Village Networks system using Vonage.  The service should start in the last quarter of 2016.  The Village Networks solution, subject to some testing should serve our communities that are over the border in Bucks at North End and Turville Heath.  Village Networks will not get a BDUK state subsidy and we hope to raise money for this locally.  We anticipate that the amount required will be about £25,000.

After Tuesday’s meeting we’ll do some sort of write-up for this website and I shall write further articles here with more detail.  Village Networks will do some planning with the new BT information and firm up their proposal.  VN will be at the Tuesday meeting in listening mode if you want to talk with them.

We remain grateful to the many people putting so much effort into bringing broadband to our communities, not least our elected representatives and their officials and police officers and staff.

Posted in Britwell Hill, Britwell Salome, Christmas Common, Cookley Green, Cuxham, Greenfield, Howe Hill, Little Stoke, Maidensgrove, Northend, Park Corner, Pishill with Stonor, Pyrton, Russells Water, Swyncombe, Turville Heath | 1 Comment

OFCOM report – some help but let’s keep ploughing on

Ofcom has reported today on a range of BT issues.  There are  couple of things that may be helpful to us, but it is hard to tell and they will take a year or two to implement.

  1. Ofcom is belatedly asking Openreach to allow other companies to use Openreach’s telegraph poles and ducts to lay fibre that competes with BT.  As part of this Ofcom is asking Openreach to produce a database of where and in what condition the ducts and poles are in.  Superficially this might be helpful to us in the Connect8 area as it is impossible to buy modern services here over BT’s clapped out wires.  So if you are prepared to pay then it might now be possible to get some fibre over the last mile or two or three.  Also we know that BT doesn’t know the state or even precise location of many local wires, ducts etc. It might make things more amenable to people like Gigaclear. As Ofcom says ‘Inevitably, this kind of investment is most viable in denser urban areas and other places with strong demand for new services. ‘  this could be useful for people with deep pockets or businesses who aren’t reached by the plans BT and OCC are drawing up which should bring fibre cabinets nearer to us, from which we could ten run services.
  2. Service standards for Openreach – many local people suffer very poor line quality and basic DSL performance.  Introducing service standards might help this, tied in with delivering 10Mb/s as a new universal services.  Locally services are around 0.5Mb/s to 2Mb/s in part because the kit is knackered and the distances too long.  so improved service standards should help.  As OFCOM say ‘we will seek to ensure that, if things do go wrong, consumers and small businesses receive automatic compensation for any loss of or reduction in service. This will provide a significant incentive for providers to improve service and fix faults quickly.’ The plans being drawn up by Openreach and the County Council should improve this but not for everyone.
  3. OFCOM draw attention to a review I hadn’t heard of that will be of interest locally ‘our review of the small market where local loop unbundling of BT’s copper cables
    is not economically viable and superfast broadband is not yet available – the
    Wholesale Broadband Access Market Review; ‘ Basically this is for exchanges like Turville where you are stuck with BT – I shall put a submission in on this.

Much of the media coverage will be on OFCOM not separating out BT and Openreach – I am relaxed about this – it would have led to years of court battles and wouldn’t have helped us an inch.  We just carry on working with Village Networks on their proposal for a radio based local solution and also with OCC and BT on their plans for subsidised VDSL locally.

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Evidence to and briefing for Select Committee on Connect8

To prepare for the Select Committee’s visit I wrote a briefing paper on the background to our local situation and what we were up to with Connect8.  It’s a useful backgrounder for anyone interested in what we are up to as of early February 2016.  You can see it here.


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Transcript of evidence to Select Committee hearing in Russell’s Water – local bits

CMS evidence in progressThe transcript of the formal evidence session has popped up on the Parliament website – I have extracted here my bits that relate to the area as many have naturally reported struggles to view the video over the awful local broadband – it’s not a vanity thing for me it’s always cringey to read your own words.  The other witnesses bits are great too you can find them at the link above.

Chair: That is very helpful. Could I turn to you, Mr Perrin? You have been nodding your head vigorously in agreement with Mr Corbett, I have taken it. Can you comment on the argument that BT has made, which goes something like, “We had to start with the easier to reach ones because in many areas we are still trying to figure out what is the most cost-effective way of delivering a particular technology to these areas. Every geography is different from each other and we had to start with the easier ones in order to get going and understand some of the problems before we really engaged and figured out what the hardest ones were”? Where did that argument go wrong, do you think?

William Perrin: It went wrong by starting with BT and also this very primitive utilitarian assumption—you are far more qualified, Chairman, possibly than I am—that you create the greatest good for the greatest number by rolling out as many households as you can. That did not take into account the fact that in rural areas the need is far greater. There is a rural multiplier, as I see it. In this neighbourhood it is zero to 0.95 megabits per second. There are greater benefits to connecting this neighbourhood up to 20 to 25 megabits than there is in a small town where they may already have 17 or 18 megabits. In that small town there is far more opportunity for commercial competition to come in and deliver in an easier delivery environment.

In these rural areas it is more challenging to come up with a business model but there are alternative technologies that BT does not have. You saw in your visits this morning a presentation from Village Networks, a local wireless broadband provider, who provide a very good service in the Hambleden valley using simple off-the-shelf technology to deliver a service quickly and effectively at 25 megabits a second. The cost they are quoting us to roll such a service in our Connect8 area, as we call it, is of the order of £10,000 to £20,000, which is less than half what you pay for one cabinet from BT if you were to go to a community-funded scheme there.

I don’t buy the BT argument at all. It depends on their own cost modelling, their own cost assumptions that are based on the fact they own a copper network, so that is what they want to use.


Q579    Chair: Just to pick up that very interesting point you have made there that it is not just about economic value, it is also about in some sense the social value involved. If the economists associated with the process, DCMS or outside, were better able to capture and model in some sense that social value they might well have ended up with a different calculus about how much to roll out and where?

William Perrin: I grew up on a farm that was a mile from a paved road and two miles from the nearest village, and we were at the end of the line for everything. I spent 15 years in my career in Whitehall and during that time I never met anyone who understood rural issues natively, who had actually lived there and worked there.


Q580    Chair: That included Ministers, did it?

William Perrin: Yes, it did. I am quite happy to have a chat with a Minister I worked with who I felt did not quite grasp that at that time, but I have not worked for the current Government so I can’t speak for that. But Whitehall does not see rural issues through a proper lens. It does not understand the great opportunities there are for internet-based businesses in rural areas that can take advantage of this wonderful scenery, the beautiful countryside, the opportunities in tourism and in modern agriculture that require some degree of broadband connectivity. That was not considered by Whitehall at the outset of this process and now I think we see the Government reaping considerable political discomfort from having got it wrong.

Q585    Chair: That is helpful. I want to bring colleagues in but let me ask one question of all of you, and maybe I could start with Mr Perrin. It has been suggested that a possible solution would be to find some way of splitting Openreach from BT and that would be an enabler of investment and in some sense the next stage in the evolution of the market. The contrary argument to that is it would be enormously time consuming, expensive and disruptive. Where do you come out on that argument?

William Perrin: I think it is symptomatic of starting at the wrong end of the elephant to start with the supplier rather than the customer. One of the things the Government have learned and have been lauded for internationally over the last few years is that in any form of particularly technology policy you need to adopt a user-focused design process that starts with the customer and then works its way back up the chain. The entire broadband policy since 2010 has been a supplier-driven policy that has revolved around the companies that can deliver it rather than the things that customers need. If you start from there and work backwards, you could end up with quite a different situation. I understand people’s frustration and people often are looking for an “in one bound we were free” policy solution and it seems like the separation of BT and Openreachis one they can grab for it. But it also presumes, of course, that there is someone other than BT who would pay Openreach colossal sums of money to put the infrastructure in and that has not been proven yet.


Q586    Chair: You are sounding like you are coming out in favour of another push on the current model differently designed, not separating Openreach out but using BT and other providers?

William Perrin: I would see these as two parallel but related issues. I would reset the strategy to focus on the customers, to get civil servants and people from Ofcom out to communities like this to understand the reality of the experience, to listen to more of what Mr Long is saying about future demand and future needs, because Ofcom’s figures are clearly miles out by at least an order of magnitude, and then start to think again about the strategy. In the meantime, if you want to separate BT and Openreach, that is great, but it will clearly cause enormous turbulence in those companies as they do it and that is not going to speed up the delivery of anything.


Q587    Chair: If you adopt a user-focused approach and you look at what users actually want, then they don’t just want to download and use iPlayer. They want to be able to have every member of the family using it at the same time, they want to be able to do videoconferencing with members of the family who are away, they want to be able to do telemedicine in due course, particularly in rural areas. Therefore, you are going to need just the kind of increased bandwidth that Mr Long has suggested is going to be required. That means vastly more investment than is currently possible and you are pushing, in effect, at a liberalisation of the market and potentially a dissociation of Openreach from BT. Do you accept that line of thought or not?

William Perrin: It is not entirely clear that those former things lead to a separation, but you have to be aware in any user-based design situation of people saying, “I want the moon on a stick. That is what I would like; I would like to have absolutely everything”. One of the things that strikes me working in rural areas is that there is an urgency to get something rather than waiting a long time for everything. People around here need modern, functioning broadband now. People here would kill for 25 megabits a second and they want that very urgently. In order to deliver that, as a stopgap there are other technologies than that which BT is using. We are looking at radio here because it can deliver something quickly, effectively, cheaply and then in the medium term we can look at the bigger picture.


Q594    Nigel Huddleston: What would your alternative key metric be? What would you suggest?

Graham Long: For the current system, it must be premises that actually get the benefit of 24 megabits or above. That is the definition.


Q595    Nigel Huddleston: Any other comments from anybody else?

William Perrin: Just a small aside, if I may, on the way this metric is measured. We have set up here a community campaign to seek our own solutions rather than just sit here railing on about BT. We have drawn on tremendous social capital in the community to come up with a successful set of alternative proposals. But that has meant me and my co-organisers trying to understand the language that BDUK speaks. They speak in a strange language of postcodes and, of course, I challenge you to go now quickly on the internet and find anywhere a comprehensive map of all postcodes in any given area. Despite all the work done on open data over the years, it is not actually there.

In order to get a map of the postcodes of this area, I had to pay Stanfords, the mapping company, £80 for a largescale map listing all the little postcodes in the area in which we worked. Then when we spoke to BDUK at Oxfordshire County Council and BT, we found that they had made some terrible mistakes on postcodes and had big lumps of them missing because they had the same problem. They also did not have a map of postcodes, hilariously. So it was very much like the blind leading the blind—no one could see it. Then when you speak to BT, they start to talk about direct phone numbers as well and, of course, if you are running a community campaign you suddenly have to get everybody’s landlines and then hand those over to BT. Then someone will always raise a Data Protection Act issue and the whole thing becomes extremely complicated. The homes passed postcodes measure has been very tough in running a community campaign because the basic information or units being used are not available to the general public.

Chair: The way BDUK works is that areas that are regarded as being commercial are for BT and those are not touched by public subsidy. The question is why would a business park not be included as part of BT’s normal commercial remit?

Malcolm Corbett: Because they can get people to pay for leased lines if they want good broadband, obviously. Sorry, if you have the choice—okay, I pay £30 a month for a gigabit symmetric connection. If I am going to have a leased line, that is going to be hundreds if not thousands of pounds—well, hundreds of pounds a month, certainly. I am not quite sure how many—

William Perrin: Could I give a couple of specific examples from today’s experience? One of the things we found here in the Chilterns is that there are a number of people who maybe are running a big business or they may be independently wealthy and they say, “I want to buy some telecom services from BT. Hello, BT. Here is my money. I would like to buy an enormous fibre service from you, please, over the existing infrastructure”. BT cannot do that. The infrastructure is, to use a technical phrase, completely knackered. It does not work. When it rains around here, you can barely make a phone call there is so much cross-talk on the line. BT cannot provide modern telecom services in response to commercial need over that service. I tried myself. I said to BT, “In my remote house, I am spending a lot of money on redeveloping the house. I would like to buy some broadband from you, please, on a commercial basis”. They quoted me £54,000 for a 10-megabit a second leased line, which was highly unlikely to work based on my engineering. At the same time, they supplied me with three business phone lines, two of which I had to reject because there was no digital signal at all. They were literally rejected; I sent them back and got my money back. There is this paradox that while BT will say to people on business parks, “You can pay us”, our real world experience here is that no matter what you pay them they cannot actually provide a service.

Q600    Damian Collins: Unless I get some surprisingly different answers from the panel. Mr Perrin, I can anticipate your answer to this question, but I was going to ask how you rated BT’s maintenance of the existing copper network. From what you said earlier, it sounds like it will be pretty low.

William Perrin: Yes. In these rural areas, it is completely worn out. Two or three things tend to happen. In exposed areas like this, the lines get worn away by the trees. That wears away the insulation. Water penetrates the lines and that comes through as cross-talk or faintness. Then in technical terms that comes through as increased attenuation, which means that the signal fades over a shorter distance. When BT try to put their high-speed DSL services—and I will talk in a second about what BT has promised to do here, which is encouraging—over these dilapidated rural lines, it will be like trying to get a Formula One car down a cart track. It is not going to work very well.

I have had this discussion with BT a couple of weeks ago. They have come up with a proposal with BDUK. To their great credit, they have said that they will connect 70% of the properties in our Connect8 area, which is good. We are very pleased with that and very grateful to the council and to BT. But in engineering terms, I am very concerned that they will find that extremely hard to do within budget because the network is so worn out, more than it is in other areas, that their engineering assumptions will not hold and they will run into cost barriers long before they get to that 70%. We are having a meeting with them possibly in here in June. We will get BT in and they will come up with their very detailed plans for rollout in this area, which have suddenly appeared in the last month or two.


Q601    Damian Collins: Is their response to this problem, “We will deal with the maintenance issues when we upgrade the network”?

William Perrin: In conversations I have had with BT engineers, they look a bit worried when I talk about rural dilapidation. Almost everybody in the audience here today will have had an Openreach engineer up a pole trying to help them with a failed phone line of one sort or another. In my urban experience when I have lived in cities, that has not happened. It is just not as broken and worn out.

Part of the DSL approach in putting in the green cabinets is a part of network renewal, but I am sceptical about the ability to achieve the Prime Minister’s target of 8 meg by 2020 or whenever it is because that 8 meg cannot be delivered over this dilapidated rural network. That could be a good thing if it drives upgrading and maintenance, but we do not really know. Openreach is horribly overstretched at the moment delivering the BDUK work, so it is very hard to get a clear picture out of them.

Q606    Damian Collins: Can I ask one final question to the panel? We have heard lots during our inquiry and it has come up during our visit today as well that there is a frustration that Openreach insist on confidentiality clauses in a lot of their work because they say it is market sensitive. Even though this is not commercial work—BDUK work is public subsidy; they are providing a public utility—they cite market confidentiality. They do the same for refusing to disclose areas where they are likely to invest in the future, including the rural communities where the market case has not yet been set. This seems a barrier to entry for other providers. I will start with Mr Perrin first. Do you think there should be a use-it-or-lose-it provision in there for BT where if it is a piece of infrastructure that they are not yet upgrading and they are not prepared to commit to upgrading, then they should lose the right to do that if another provider wants to come along and take it off their hands or provide an alternative service?

William Perrin: There are two parts to that. I have appeared before this Committee previously to give evidence on transparency in public organisations. I simply cannot understand how we have ended up in a situation where massive state subsidy is being paid out to a company that is a monopoly as defined by law to do activities in areas that have been defined in law to be non-competitive and it has a veil of secrecy over it. I do not understand that at all. Any economist will tell you that the more information you have, the better price you achieve, the better outcome. Obviously, you know Akerlof and Stiglitz won a Nobel Prize for their lemon theory last year, 30 years on, which suggests that the more information you have the better price you achieve for a good. I simply cannot understand it. It is a huge structural flaw in the policy environment.

Use it or lose it is not something I have considered, I have to say, and I would probably pass that to others on the panel who may have views.

William Perrin: Could I commend to the Committee—or maybe you should ask for a note on it from someone—the scheme run by Community Broadband Scotland in the Highlands and Islands? As I understand it, and I may be wrong but I think I have it right, they have a small team of five people who work for them. They detect a community broadband project coming up somewhere. Someone will say, “We have a broadband problem up on this mountain or on this island” and then a community outreach worker will go and talk to them, assess the situation. Then they will send in a technology specialist who will go and look at what the viable technology options may be and then, crucially, they will send in a finance specialist to work with them as well to work out where they can raise money. The money can be raised from the lottery and others for this sort of thing. Then, most importantly, that area is taken out of the BT Scotland programme. On the one hand, BT Scotland, because it is hard work up there connecting these areas, does not have to go there, but at the same time there is no danger of accidental or deliberate predation by the incumbent. That strikes me as being a very sensible scheme.

Q617    Ian C. Lucas: Last week we heard evidence from Avanti, who talked to us about the benefits of delivering broadband via satellite. Mr Long, you made a reference to this earlier. You do not accept their evidence?

William Perrin: I have had a Eutelsat two-way satellite product, state of the art, but the bottom line is, it does not work very well. The latency, the round-trip time, is 750 milliseconds, which is determined by the speed of light and that is not going to change much, we hope, over time. That is too long for Skype to work, for video Skype, for people to hang out, but it also means responsive menus on a modern webpage just get stuck. It is like driving a very heavy lorry with a very small engine in. Eventually, if you get up to speed, it will start downloading at a reasonable pace, but anything that involves sending stuff back up the network does not work very well.

I turned then to a 4G solution using a very small antenna on the outside of my house that picked up a signal from Watlington, three miles away. The antenna came with some wires. I drilled a hole in the wall, plugged them into a little router that I stuck a sim card into. That worked really well and that gives me 17 megabits down, 35 megabits up, unless lots of people in Watlington are uploading cat videos, in which case it slows down a little bit in the evenings. That works brilliantly for me as a stopgap until I get something better.

Then this issue that Mr Long raised of caps comes in. It is an EE service. I think I pay about £35 for about 25 gigabits. The last episode of “War and Peace” in HD was 2.7 gigabits, so one TV show takes out 10% of my monthly allowance. We get through that in about four or five days, so I then have to top it up and it is quite expensive.

I have become quite an advocate of 4G as a stopgap service and I am very interested to see Airwave, the police emergency communications replacement, being delivered by 4G because that must axiomatically bring more 4G into rural areas. It is a good solution, but it is one of those things you never really find out about. If you are a regular person just wanting to improve your broadband, it is very hard to go anywhere to find out information about these types of products. The equipment enabling me to do that cost in total £200.

Q623    Chair: No, we are just trying to feel out what the alternatives are. We are very much in the game of looking for solutions in this area. If any of you has ideas or your organisations do as to specifically how this might work—the relationship between investment incentives on operators funded by some kind of fund or equivalent, in turn off the back of some kind of levy, which is an area of interesting potential solutions—we would be very keen to hear more from you.

Graham Long: Can I suggest that there is one big problem? This has just occurred to me. You potentially are going to be penalising the SMEs and private users and letting the large corporations off the hook with that. The reason I say that is because large companies you will find already run their own very large private networks, which will be using leased line. You cannot tap into that data. They will be able to communicate internationally without having to pay such a levy, but small companies who do not have that luxury and individuals will obviously have to pay it.

William Perrin: The issue, though, of funds, Chairman, taps into something that we have encountered as a community campaign, which is the ability to easily raise money for a community broadband solution. If communities want to raise money to build a village hall like this, that is a well-understood model. There is a going rate. There is an approach to Big Lottery or someone analogous to that or another local philanthropist or grant-maker or a council community fund and so on.

What we found with testing the water on raising money for a community broadband scheme is that it is a completely new thing for most traditional grant makers. I had a very good dialogue with Big Lottery because there was a perception among some activists that Big would not fund community broadband things. I talked to officials there and they went away and thought about it and they came back and said, “Yes, of course we would. If we would rebuild your village hall or repaint the scout hut, then this is a very modern version of that and we should do it, but it is a new thing for us. We have not been approached to do this much. We have only made five or six grants of this nature”. We have had a very good dialogue with our district council here through Councillor Babcock where it has been made clear that if we were to approach them possibly for some sort ofgrant, that would be considered favourably. It would not be out of set to go to them for a grant for broadband.

This is something that for community schemes is a tricky area because it is a new thing for grant makers. Many grant makers are not terribly innovative. They tend to grant in response to the median requests they get. They are not so strong at these new things. If you were to have a universal service fund of some sort, there may be a suggestion to get the customers into it as well and see if they can get a bit of it.

William Perrin: I agree with all the preceding points, but I come back to the point that if you want to increase the involvement of altnets, it is not just about the money, much of it is about information and understanding what is possible. As I discussed with Mr Corbett before this session, it is for their trade association as well to provide better information on what their members can do that googles up well when people like us are saying, “What else can I do? What is not BT?” When I start typing that into broadband I need to see something from INCA explaining what the options are, what the technology options are, what the fundraising options are. This is something the Government could broker very easily. We see BT has just launched what it calls a community partnership scheme.

Malcolm Corbett: Give us the dosh.

William Perrin: Yes, give us the money; a give us some money site, and that is trying to inveigle people to give it some money to buy their own cabinet, as it were. Hilariously, it does not have any prices on it at all. We are in this crazy situation where you find out how much BT charges for things by reading the minutes of parish meetings that mention the amount before they sign the NDA. You can tell that a green cabinet costs about £40,000, which is incredibly expensive, but they seem to be having this process to encourage people to pay them to build infrastructure without telling them how much it costs. I think that is wrong.

Q625    Damian Collins: Just one further question. I would be interested in your views on the mobile infrastructure project and why it has not been more successful in delivering masts in lots more areas. Mr Perrin, I can see you nodding there.

William Perrin: We are in a mobile notspot, pretty much, here—[Interruption.]

Chair: We have had the audience’s undivided attention as a result. [Laughter.]

William Perrin: In the neighbouring Stonor Valley, which was recognised as a mobile notspot formerly, the mobile infrastructure project engaged through planning consultants and reached out to Lord Camoys, who is lord of the manor of Stonor. His people offered up a site for a mast on top of the hill and then the mobile infrastructure project was pulled and it was not built. Stonor is interesting in some ways because it is archetypal of the reasons that Arqiva—the mobile infrastructure project—give, in that 15 years ago there was a strong campaign to stop the mobile phone mast being put in the valley.  That is common across the UK, and many areas that now find themselves without coverage have that history. In my discussions with a lot of people around the subject across the country, the problem comes from this top-down approach to planning that says, “Hello, little people, we’re coming to give you a mast. Here you go. You have to be grateful for it”. That rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way and people then start new planning campaigns, which did not happen here but we hear many cases of it. It is a classic case of supplier-driven rather than customer-led. It is a great shame. Internet consumption is drastically shifting to mobile. It is a very abrupt and sudden shift over the last three or four years—ask anyone who works in the media business about the scope of the change. There is almost a risk, apart from whether we are bringing the right bandwidth and wires to plug in, that we are looking at completely the wrong thing when it should be mobiletechnologies.

In Russell’s Water we have a gentleman who runs a modern precision-farming business. In the average tractor you will now see four or five screens and as the tractor drives itself the farmer will be doing his e-mail on an iPad, if she or he can get a signal. I am very concerned that the Government seem to have closed down the mobile infrastructure project—we don’t really know what has happened, but there is no announcement as to what is to replace it. If we as citizens, and I am asking this question of the mobile networks at the moment, want to get a mast in our community I have no idea how we do that. I get stuck with the contact centres; I get stuck with the government relations people, who pass me round; and I’ve got no idea how to fulfil that community need. It is even worse in some ways than talking to BT and BDUK because I have no leverage; no angle. It is a great shame and we need something to replace it but it needs to be more grass-roots driven and customer driven, bottom up.

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TV coverage of CMS Committee rural broadband hearing in Russells Water

CMS committee screen shotThe official video of the formal evidence session is now up on the Parliament site.  I’ll do some indexed links here over the next few days to help people navigate through it but to kick off here is my first intervention about the local Connect8 situation and then me talking about satellite and 4G broadband.  Usual apologies to those at home who of course don’t have enough bandwidth to view this……I have uploaded the audio which is lower bandwidth, i’ll see if i can index that in due course.  Thanks to everyone who was able to come along on a workday.

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House of Commons Select Committee visit our Connect8 area

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee made their visit on the 11th February taking a tour of the area with visits to the Tree Barn at Greenfield and the Hundred Hills Vineyard at Pishill prior to the official evidence session at Russell’s Water Village Hall where there was a full house to hear the witness evidence

MP's at Russells Water       CMS evidence in progress

The visit started with an informal reception hosted by Connect8’s William Perrin at the Barn at Britwell Hill Farm. This gave the four MP’s the chance to meet a large number of our Connect8 supporters informally and to hear their personal accounts of the quest for an acceptable broadband service – our guests included local councillors and Commander Rory Freeman of Thames Valley Police who was able to witness the strategic importance of the masts on Britwell Hill in kicking off the radio solution outlined in the proposals being put forward by Village Networks.

The visits to the Tree Barn and the Hundred Hills Vineyard gave the CMS MP’s a perfect demonstration of the problems faced by these rural business ventures through a lack of super fast broadband and with no firm indication of when BT will finally deliver the promised connectivity.

BBC Oxford gave the visit full coverage in their TV news programme.

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