broadband Engineer engineering H/W Net

Rural Broadband — a Lesson in JFDI (Part 2)

Rural broadband service deployed by Tim Robinson has made a difference to his local community – Part 2

Readers who have not yet read Part 1 of Tim Robinson’s post will want to do so now, whereas those who have done so and who are no doubt eager to plunge right in should hesitate no longer.

More often than not it pays to keep your mouth shut, however sometimes it pays more to be a blabbermouth! Had I kept quiet about the VDSL2 connection my friend Dave and I jury-rigged from his house to mine I’d have had a 40 Mbit/sec internet service all to myself. Alas, though, I was unable to keep such a good secret. I told my neighbours, who were immediately intrigued and wished to know more. Significant help was offered in exchange for a slice of the pie, so we ran an ethernet cable to the next door neighbour, and a cantenna-based 2.4 GHz link across the road to the other neighbor, and needless to say they were both chuffed to bits. Looking back on it all now, too, I think it is fair to say that without their encouragement and loads of assistance that just might have been the end of the story.

The roof of my house has a bird’s eye view of large swathes of the town, and this inspired us to consider the opportunities that this might open up to serve to the broadbandless burghers of Basingstoke. We decided after a couple of months that it was time to take things a bit further, to spread the net wider so to speak! With the addition of a cheap Mikrotik router, a Freeradius server, some clever MySQL queries from one of the neighbours, and a couple of rooftop antennas, I was able to get a basic configuration running that would allow us to bill users in a way similar to AAISP’s rather complex billing plan. And so, with just a few hundred quid’s worth of kit was born. It may not have compare to the American WWII effort at Iwo Jima, but it felt good nonetheless to get that first base station up and running, with the help of one of my pioneering neighbours. The first paying customers were all members of the Basingstoke Broadband Campaign who lived in my area and who were prepared to put their money where their mouths had been. And the rest, as they say, is history.

During all of this time the leviathan had not completely gone to sleep, as while I was extending the network out to Chineham and Beggarwood — which had even worse broadband speeds than we had over in our neck of the woods — BT and BDUK were plotting to use government money to overbuild my commercially deployed network and steal my customers. Well, that’s how it felt, anyway.

BDUK have since overbuilt a major part of my footprint, and it has been interesting as there was not a sudden and mass exodus from our 8 Mbit/sec service to VDSL2. As such, we had breathing space in which to look for ‘pastures new’, and we started to look further ‘afield’. (Puns very much intended – read on.)

Rather more recently, I was invited by Hampshire County Council to attend a Country Landowner’s Association meeting held in Winchester, to discuss rural broadband. The keynote speakers were Bill Murphy of BT and Maria Miller MP, (who was also Minister for Media Culture and Sport at the time), and needless to say the meeting did not go particularly well for either of them (though the lunch was quite good). There was a lot of animated discussion and, being a member of the awkward squad, I asked a few pertinent questions from the floor.

After the meeting a farmer and his wife approached and told me their long and sad tale. He had a load of farm buildings he’d converted into industrial units, and BT did not have enough copper to provide phones to all of them. The lines that did exist extended 8km to the exchange, too, so broadband was slow and flakey. Word on the street was that one tenant had been quoted £12,000 in excess construction charges to get one analogue line installed, and the farmer was having trouble letting some of the units as a result. He asked me the question I was waiting for: “Could I do anything to help?”

We looked at Google. I told him there was a problem in the way, that being a huge hill that blocked line of sight to his farm from my house. The response to that will forever remain ingrained in my mind. “That’s not a problem. That’s MY hill! Why not stick a repeater on top of it?”

The farmer took me around to his land and showed me what could be seen from where. He spoke to his neighbours, and quite literally elevated us and our survey antennas to new heights in his cherry picker, with cows looking on suspiciously from below. He generally oiled the wheels of progress in such a creative and ‘can-do’ way that within a few months I was connecting his farm, his home and the first of his tenants to our network!

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