Jeremy Steventon Barnes, BT’s Network Director for Superfast Cornwall, and Julian Cowans, Programme Manager for Superfast Cornwall at Cornwall Development Company, came to Withiel on August 26 to explain why part of the parish is not getting a fibreoptic broadband service in the immediate future and to sketch out options for those of us who are among the deprived.

In broadband terms, this was the equivalent of getting the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury along to explain nuances of scripture. We are grateful to them for making the trip, and to Cally Law, whose article in the Sunday Times about broadband in Withiel raised the profile of the issue.

Jeremy and Julian came to Cally’s house at Ketty’s Close to meet a group of Withiel people who find themselves off the fibreoptic ‘footprint’ and were concerned to know how they might best rejoin the modern world. Present were Martin Pumphrey, Simon Coy, Sue Kirkby, David Cubitt, Pat Malone and Janet Shearer, and over a period of 90 minutes they peppered Jeremy and Julian with questions which drilled down into the reasons why we can’t have fibreoptic broadband, and what might be done about it.

To cut to the chase, it’s fairly certain that that one day soon all of Withiel parish will have fibre-based broadband, and our problem is finding something to give us cost-effective and workable broadband in the meantime. Between two and four years from now we could have a system that runs fibreoptic cable on existing telephone poles to remote ‘nodes’ from which a broadband service can be plumbed into individual homes. That’s one solution – there will probably be others. Exactly how long this will take, how it will be done and by whom, is not yet settled.

About 50 homes in the Ruthernbridge and Tregawne areas are not benefitting from fibre this time round because they lie too far from the BT cabinet. The cabinet that serves these homes can be fibre-enabled, but that would be pointless because the distance to the affected homes would be too great for the signal to survive the onward journey in a useable condition.

Unsurprisingly, money is at the root of the problem. Julian Cowans explained something about the funding for Superfast Cornwall. It’s not commercially viable for a company like BT to provide fibre to all of Cornwall, and the government and the European Commission are providing “gap funding” to bridge the chasm between what’s needed to do the job, and what business prudence would dictate BT should spend. But this funding is not bottomless, so there are some unfortunates (us) who are too expensive to connect if the money is not to run out.

Jeremy said BT had originally signed up to provide 80 percent of Cornwall with broadband in excess of 30 mbps (for comparison, Ketty’s Close currently gets 0.4 mbps) and because things were working out better than they’d expected, it turned out they were enabling 90 percent of Cornwall to reach this figure, and could probably reach 95 percent. But that won’t include us. Providing that speed to our 50 houses now would cost at least £50,000 – this is a very rough estimate – and the money isn’t there. Jeremy adds, however, that BT is committed to use its best endeavours to get fast broadband to everyone, however remote. And there will be a Plan ‘B’.

Public funding of broadband projects is set to continue beyond 2015, and although nothing has gone out to tender yet, Cornwall Council has started to work towards the long term vision of trying to get 99 percent of the county on to superfast speeds. This phase is likely to begin next year. Jeremy said that if BT tenders for this work and wins, it could probably address the Withiel problem with what it calls the Fibre to the Remote Node system described above. Just when this work would be done is anybody’s guess. Not only is there a tendering process, but the exigencies of European funding and bureaucratic involvement could draw matters out. Jeremy thought it might be accomplished in two years; Julian thought within four more likely, and pointed out that another provider and solution could be selected, and that discussions at Ketty’s Close were being limited to matters within the public domain, so that any future tendering process should not be jeopardised. But whatever we do now, we need to bear in mind that this is a short-term expedient, and not blow the bank on something that will soon be rendered valueless.

Satellite service is an option – more on this later – but the most interesting potential solution Jeremy put forward was the possibility of piggy-backing off the service of someone in Withielgoose who will be getting broadband at an estimated 15mbps, transmitting a signal wirelessly to a solar-powered mast on the top of Simon Coy’s hill, then relaying it wirelessly to all those homes that need it. We are in the process of working out what speeds might be attained by such a system, at what cost, and whether it would meet the needs of every user. More information as it becomes available. – Pat Malone

 

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