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Many homes in Withiel are among the small percentage in Cornwall which are unable to receive ‘superfast’ fibreoptic broadband. This is bad luck – only 13,000 houses in the whole county are outside what they call the ‘fibre footprint’ – and it’s especially unfortunate for those who are excluded while people across the road can get the service. The Parish Council has been concerned for the past year that this would be the case, but only in the last few months has Superfast Cornwall admitted that many of us in the Parish are outside the fibre footprint and will have to make alternative arrangements or be left behind.
The only real solution at the moment is satellite broadband, where a company puts a Sky-like dish on your house through which you download your emails, surf the web and so forth. Superfast Cornwall will pay for the installation of your satellite dish if they cannot provide you with fibre, but the satellite companies charge monthly and some of their charges are quite ferocious. If you want to download films or spend your whole life on Facebook, you could be looking at serious bills.
Good advice is thin on the ground. In my experience Superfast Cornwall is keen to broadcast its successes but would rather forget its failures – those areas which cannot be fibre-enabled. ‘It’s all on the website’ is the tone of their curt emails. And indeed it is – to check whether you can get fibreoptic broadband, go to www.superfastcornwall.org and click on ‘check your line’ near the top of the page. Put in your landline number, and if fibre is available to you it will say so. You can then follow the instructions on how to get it.
For much of Withiel Parish, however, it will say: ‘Sorry, superfast fibre broadband is not available to you just yet’. It offers you the option of registering for further information. It’s not worth doing this, as all you’ll get is a series of emails about Superfast Cornwall’s latest successes, and it will only make you jealous.
If you believe you may be outside the fibre footprint you have to email Claire Hutchinson, the person who covers our area, for verification. Send your address and phone number, and she will come back with a yes or no answer. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re off the fibre network you have little option but to research satellite systems. Superfast Cornwall has linked with four satellite providers, Avonline, Primetech, DigiWeb and CorSat. While these are the only companies though which Superfast Cornwall will pay for your satellite dish and its installation, they’re not necessarily the cheapest for you in the long run. Some satellite providers are so much cheaper that it would be worth you paying your own installation costs and going with them.
Like the electricity and gas companies, the broadband companies create complex tariffs that make your head spin so you can’t easily figure out what you’re getting for what you’re paying. With the most basic service from Avonline, with Superfast Cornwall paying your initial charges you’d get 5 Gigabytes (Gb) of data a month at a download speed of 4 Megabytes per second (Mbps) for £23.95. But if you passed up Superfast Cornwall’s contribution, you’d pay £100 installation charge, £50 activation fee and £5 a month hardware rental. That would increase your download speed to 15 Mbps and your limit to 10 Gb a month, while costing £24.95, £1 more than the basic installation-paid fee. If you found you needed 20 Gb, Avonline would charge you the same installation fee and rental but your download speed would be 15 Mbps and your monthly fee £34.95, £4 less than the rate you’ll pay if Superfast Cornwall foots the installation bill.
Much depends on your usage pattern. There’s no such thing as ‘average’ domestic use. One household that just sends text emails will use very little, while another with three kids who download films or constantly surf the web will need a different contract. An hour of film will cost you a minimum of 700 Mb, depending on video quality. If you find a reliable satellite broadband provider whose tariffs are better than the approved companies, please let us know.
Without getting technical, one thing to bear in mind is ‘latency’ or ‘ping rate’. This is the elapsed time between you hitting the button and the message bouncing off the satellite, and it’s about 0.6 to 0.8 of a second in most cases but can be higher. You can experience it when you’re watching the news, and a correspondent seems to stand dumbly for a couple of seconds after the newsreader asks a question – you hear the question before he does, and you hear his answer a while after he gives it. Normally this doesn’t matter, but if you’re into online gaming or anything where quick reaction is necessary, then satellite broadband is not for you.
Make sure, too, that your provider is flexible about you breaking your contract. When the current Superfast Cornwall programme finishes next March they will be looking at finding better solutions for people like us, and even for those people whose fibre broadband is not living up to expectations – it doesn’t work well for everyone. They may come up with a viable alternative such as the improved ADSL2+, and if something better comes along you want to be able to break your satellite contract. Most companies allow you to do this.
Avonline’s web address is www.avonlinebroadband.com/cornwall; it also has a freephone number, 0303 303 3131. They allow you to upgrade or downgrade the level of service you choose for the first 90 days, and they urge you to aim low and upgrade as necessary. The least you will pay is £23.95 a month. That gets you 5 Gb of data. Remember, that’s both upload and download – reasonable domestic use would be nearer 15 or 20 Gb, which takes you up to £47.50 a month. Heavy users will pay up to £83.95 a month. Avonline’s contracts start at 24 months, and you can break at any time if a new system comes along. A ‘router’ to turn your broadband wireless costs an extra £59.99.
Primetech put you off from the first moment because you have to pay to talk to them – they use a premium-rate phone number, 0845 345 5734. Their website is www.primetech.co.uk and it shows that while installation is free, they charge a £75 ‘equipment activation fee’ and a £49.95 ‘account set-up fee’. Data charges are broadly similar to those of Avonline, but Primetech adds VAT to the stated prices.
DigiWeb is an Irish company; they also have a freephone number – 0800 949 6023 – and their website is www.digiweb.co.uk/cornwall. Their free monthly data allowance for the £24.95 lowest tariff is only 3 Gb, but 15 Gb costs £69.95. If you use more than your limit the service slows down, then speeds up again at the end of the month. They allow you to upgrade, but not to downgrade, so whatever you do, don’t sign up for more than you know you need. VAT is included in their prices.
CorSat has a Bodmin base – 01208 220 500 – and it claims the free installation saves you £499. It charges a set-up fee of £45 and its lowest tariff is £19.99 for 5 Gb, with speeds similar to the others. 20 Gb will cost you £39.99. But if you buy your equipment outright for £499 you only pay £29.99 for 20 Gb, so you’d be in profit after just over four years. All the prices they quote exclude VAT.
Alternatives – 3G
If you’re in a part of Withiel with a good mobile phone service you might be able to get 3G broadband through your mobile signal. In much of the parish, alas, the phone service is lousy to non-existent. Put your postcode into the search box on http://www.three.co.uk/_standalone/Coverage_checker?maptypeForm=mbb to find out whether you can get indoor coverage, outdoor coverage, or none at all. If you can get 3G, their tariffs are even more complicated than the satellite people, and their allowances even smaller.
If you do get workable satellite broadband, it’s worth remembering that in theory you no longer need a BT line, so you can get away with having your landline removed. Between Skype and your mobile phone you should be able to manage, although you may feel insecure because your internet and mobile are more vulnerable to service interruption than your landline. Furthermore, if you abandon BT and Superfast Cornwall eventually finds a way of piping fibreoptic broadband to your house, you can be sure BT will charge you revenge money to get reconnected. – Pat Malone
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