Case Study: People Power Powers Community Broadband In Oxfordshire

Sep 29, 2015

The parish of Northmoor, a rural community nestled in the countryside close to the River Thames, has transformed its future and sense of community thanks to the installation of ultrafast broadband from rural broadband specialist Gigaclear

A year back, say the pair, 14% of residents didn’t have internet access, with a further 42% reporting bad broadband service. Nearly half of residents in one areas, Bablockhythe, couldn’t get online at all.

In sharp contrast, every property has a connection point to Gigaclear ultrafast pure fibre broadband, with available speeds up to 40 times faster than the UK average. Residents also have the capability to Skype Singapore, download films and surf the web all at the same time, in record speed all day, every day without a glitch, has been told.

The Village Appraisal

When a new parish council was elected and set out to ask what residents wanted, the council decided to ask the residents how the village could be improved by circulating a questionnaire to everyone in the parish, a process that was led by local Peter Winder.

Over 20 years before that, in a village appraisal conducted in the 1990s, councillors had also sought to find out the views of residents. The appraisal revealed that satellite dishes, too many cars and central heating were the top topics.

Showing just how times have changed, the results from the latest survey, revealed that internet speeds were now the biggest issue for local residents. Broadband connectivity was seen as essential for the community, to enable people to run their businesses, work from home, contact relatives, shop and bank online, and carry out day-to-day tasks that are an integral and growing part of modern life.

Nearly one third of survey respondents living in the parish either worked from home or ran their own business from home. Of those asked, nearly one in ten cited working from home as a major driver of the need for faster speeds; a further 6% cited running a business. For those in more isolated locations particularly, situated further away from the exchange, Internet access was virtually nonexistent. This meant that many residents would have to go outside the village to do the simplest of online tasks.

Nearly half of residents living in Bablockhythe found getting online was impossible.  The Internet was so bad that some couldn’t even get dial up, it's claimed.

Accessing Funding

Thanks to a lot of effort  from the parish council, and a dedicated ‘broadband committee’, comprising Northmoor citizens Graham Shelton, Peter Winder, Sue, Simon and James Harrison, Graeme Ogilvie and Steve and Terri Allisson, the village won a grant of £186,000 of EU funding via the Rural Community Broadband Fund. As result, Northmoor has been transformed into a hub of online activity.

FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) was clearly unfeasible for Northmoor, according to Graham: “Part of our application demonstrated that we would have to have 13 cabinets in the village for everyone to have working internet if we were to consider that model. The number was calculated using Ofcom data on VDSL performance over distance, then trying to meet the technical specification laid out in the consultation document. This was just ludicrous.”

Graham Shelton, Parish Council Chairman, adds how, “We were fortunate to have the help of West Oxfordshire District Council, which helped us put the project out to tender to a number of broadband providers. Gigaclear was the head and shoulders clear winner of the procurement process that we undertook, because they had a better business plan by miles, and could give everyone ultrafast broadband without the need for multiple cabinets dotted around the village or unsightly radio masts.

"We connect up to the national spine under the Thames and across to Appleton, with each house having its own small buried fibre box outside to give residents access to the network.”

Installing Ultrafast Fibre

The project was completed in August 2014, three months after work began, with all going more smoothly than expected. Graham Shelton says: “The fibre was installed in verges along the road in a matter of weeks, it went in very fast and you wouldn’t even know it was there now. There’s a Gigaclear cabinet located by the front of the church, and another near the caravan park.”

For those who work from home, the ultrafast broadband has been a real game changer. “We have residents in the village from all professions, but for those who work from home, having Gigaclear has been invaluable. One of our residents is James Harrison, who works for a large media research organisation in London: James is now able to upload and download the very large data and video files needed to perform his job quickly, meaning he can be significantly more productive when working from home.”

Meanwhile Polly Elvin and her husband, who live at a detached farmhouse in the village, were concerned about the internet speed when they moved to Northmoor from London two years ago with their young children.

“We are a typical family and will often access the internet at the same time on different gadgets. We have Apple TV and Sky, plus we also use catch-up TV and iPlayer. Before we had Gigaclear it would be very frustrating trying to download anything for the children.  For my husband and I, email and internet is important, but it’s the video and downloading big files that we now can’t live without. With our busy lives, the working day doesn’t always stop when you get home – sometimes we’ll find we have to finish work or send emails in the evening.

The broadband has also changed how we can communicate as a family. My mum lives in South Africa and she loves being able to now see her grandchildren growing up when we Skype.”

Future Plans

Northmoor is losing several old business premises and workshops, not least because new EU regulations require them to be updated at uneconomic cost. With this on the horizon, having ultrafast broadband in the village hall couldn’t come soon enough, and offers a new way forward for local the local community.

“At parish council meetings we can now go online and look at planning applications, and this has helped us to become much more connected to our colleagues on the District Council. We now have a glint in our eye to turn the village hall into a micro business centre in the middle of Northmoor.” 

While the council hasn’t sought planning or funding for this next stage in the project yet, the idea would be to open a centre that will have a meeting room, a video conferencing centre and a shared admin resource, as well as 2 or 3 rooms that local businesses can rent out for a low cost.

“We see the new business centre as being an important element for the future of business in the village, said Graham Shelton. “This important work is being led by Chairman of the Village Hall Committee, Graeme Ogilvie”.

The Red Lion – A Community, But Now Wired Up, Pub

In addition to broadband, the state of the local village pub, The Red Lion, was also high on the list of concerns for residents. In a twist of fate, the pub was put up for sale by the brewery shortly after the survey. Not wishing to miss the opportunity, it was quickly snapped up by 90 shareholders – all residents in the village and surrounding neighbourhood - and is now thriving, even winning ‘Best Newcomer’ at the Cotswold Life Food and Drink Awards.

“One of the benefits of having more people in the village in the daytime, thanks to the better broadband, is that more people can go to the community pub for lunch We’ve got fibre in the pub too, so you can sit in the beer garden and send and receive emails, Skype friends and download films, all at the same time. It’s just amazing compared to how it was.

“We think that it’s socially transformative, and it’s all been made possible because of the service from Gigaclear.”

When David Cameron officially switched on the super fast broadband from the pub almost a year ago, he was amazed at the speed of the connection. “We set up a video broadcast with Malcolm Corbett, Chief Executive of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA). David Cameron said the internet was better than 10 Downing Street in central London!”

Ultrafast Farming, Too

The ultrafast broadband has also impressed the local farmers, with the majority of land surrounding the parish being owned by several livestock farmers. All UK farmers are obliged to update Defra on livestock location and health, with regular updates to the ministerial department on medicine, vaccinations and movement an essential, but sometimes burdensome, part of farming. 

Even if internet access is possible, a slow broadband speed means it takes an extended amount of time to upload and download the records. The ultrafast broadband means local farmers in the area can share data with Defra for complete traceability within seconds, making their day to day operations considerably quicker and more efficient, say the partners.

Bringing A Community Together

A fundamental aim of the ultrafast broadband from Gigaclear was to bring the community together, an objective that has most certainly been achieved. 

By working together, Graham Shelton, James Harrison and Peter Winder, as well as local residents Simon and Sue Harrison, Graeme Ogilvie, and Steve and Terri Allison, have brought ultrafast broadband to Northmoor, with the help and support of West Oxfordshire District Council.

Graham Shelton says: “The Broadband has really brought the community together. The parish of Northmoor, Moreton and Bablockhythe is spread over a couple of miles, but now we have much closer relationships. We’re very fortunate to have an energetic village that’s not afraid to move forward and do things; all while recognising our peaceful rural character and wanting to preserve it.

“From the outside it’s seen as a sleepy place with a leisurely way of life, but now with ultrafast broadband we’re thriving! Gigaclear is also going from strength to strength, and we’re proud to be part of that.”

(c) 2015

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