Chris Rogan's article for the Cumbria Business Gazette July 2004

Many years ago I wrote this article for the Cumbrian Business Gazzette, it’s funny but eight years on, my opinions have changed very little.

We’re still waiting in many areas better infrastructure and even the panacea I talked about in the article – SDSL got abandoned in most areas by BT.

That said, we have for a number of customers nationally been installing Ethernet First Mile (EFM) lines, which seems to be SDSL on steriods.  Bonded SDSL lines (from what I can tell) that are presented as Ethernet to the end user.

This gets around the relatively slow speeds of SDSL and provides a true replacement to a leased line.  Great stuff, but most of Cumbria can’t get this.  Our flagship and most infamous nuclear legacy site is outside the reach of such technologies, making it difficult for smaller companies operating in the area to keep thier costs down for connectivity.

There are plans afoot to bring more rural broadband across Cumbria, to lay fibre optics across the county, but eight years ago when I had a bee in my bonnet about getting Project Access (a NWDA/EU funded rural broadband initiative) to my employer at the time, I did actually get what I want.   The NWDA/EU paid Your Communications, who got took over by Thus who then got took over by Cable and Wireless, who are now in discussions about being taken over by Vodafone… you can see where this is going…

So yes, we got our rural broadband, delivered over radio links, which for the most part works – Your Communications also got a load of fibre optics paid for to back haul the data.  However the sales and marketing effort was pretty limited, the multiple takeovers of the company and loss of staff meant the knowledge of where this equipment was installed was almost completely lost.  I am not surprised that people are still campaining for the same stuff I was all those years ago.  As far as I know the EU paid for that cable and there are some legal agreements in place for it to be used for this purpose, unfortunately the NWDA who ran the project and most of the people involved are no longer around.

I have to admit, with my end-result, I was reasobably happy, my client managed to get their leased line costs at a tenth of what BT were quoting and because I was one of a few that knew about the technology, they’ve been the only customer on the radio link nearest to them for years – no contention!

Of course, I’m not going to say that technology hasn’t moved and applications now are more bandwidth hungry than ever, even I am looking at replacing this equipment with faster stuff in the ground, so a new approach is needed – but the point is, the failures of past projects need to be looked at before moving onto the next thing…  it could be that some of the backhaul network that Cable and Wireless now own could be utilised reducing Broadband Cumbria’s costs – unfortunately it would need someone to dedicate some time to get hold of the public records to see what can be used, it may indeed be easier to dig new ducts!

Possibly one of the biggest successes from Project Access was that once Your Communications won their tender, they paid BT to ADSL enable a number of remaining exchanges that weren’t on BT’s list.  The advantage of this is, that the technology goes straight into BT’s wholesale model, meaning AOL, Sky, Orange and all the other ISP’s can sell it.  If broadband goes in and people don’t know how to get it, you’ll end up with the same problems again.  The wireless technology used by Your Communications across the difficult to reach areas in the county, well nobody now knows much about it – including Cable and Wireless.

I really do wish Broadband Cumbria all the best, having been through this before, I know it’s not an easy task – there will be some very passionate people with many bees in bonnets trying to make faster broadband happen throughout Cumbria.  I hope they’ll look back at Project Access and not forget it, there were some successes, some lessons learned and even some legacy technology around that may be able to give them a leg-up.