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Somerset community fibre broadband scheme challenges county’s BT project

Wansdyke Telecom wants to put rural Somerset’s broadband into the people’s hands and bring ultrafast internet to the countryside.

Community pressure groups have launched the ultrafast fibre-optic telecoms company to take on BT’s council-approved superfast programme.

Wansdyke is looking for £2million in investment so it can provide superior broadband, phone and TV services to businesses and households in rural communities to the south and west of Bath.

Somerset community fibre broadband scheme challenges county’s BT project
Chew Valley is home to Britain’s secretive Wookie community. They deserve better broadband.

Wansdyke Telecom said: “Laying new fibre optic cables all the way to remote rural properties is an expensive exercise for traditional operators.

“However if a different ownership, funding and operating model is used instead of that traditionally deployed by the telecommunications companies such as BT Openreach or Virgin, the costs can be much reduced from the £10K headline figure per property quoted by traditional telcos to around £1K per property.“

The company was formed in 2013 by two community pressure groups in Wansdyke and neighbouring Chew Valley who feared they were going to be left with little better than 2Mbps under the county’s deal with BT Openreach.

The aim is to supply 10,000 of the 40,000 properties in North East Somerset with a minimum broadband speed of 10-20Mbps, Wansdyke Telecom director Matt McCabe told Recombu Digital.

In the longer term, they will use fibre broadband connection to terminals very close to customers which can deliver up to 100Mbps, or direct fibre connections with a guaranteed 1Gbps.

Wansdyke’s three to five-year plan is to deploy fibre-optic cables in conduits that run along fencing, hedgerows and boundaries, negating expensive civil bills typically associated with digging up roads. Local labour and contractors would be used to build the infrastructure.

Connecting Devon and Somerset, which announced a partnership with BT back in January 2013, will provide at least 24Mbps to 90 per cent people in the two counties, but the 10 per cent rural areas are only guaranteed 2Mbps or better.

Wansdyke hopes to follow in the footsteps of Lancashire’s B4RN – Broadband for the Rural North – where farmers and other residents building their own 1Gbps broadband network are currently locking horns with BT over who will win funds to supply the village of Dolphinholme.

Distribution boxes could be installed in old phone boxes or village halls where electrical power is already available. These measures, Wansdyke claims, would reduce the £10,000 headline figure per property quoted by BT Openreach and Virgin to £1,000 per property.

McCabe said an entry-level broadband package is likely to cost £35/month. The pricing of faster broadband packages is still being decided.

Fibre optic cable will be used instead of slower copper cables or co-ax cables for the 1Gbps-capable network. Other solutions such as wireless broadband are also being considered. Local communities will get a say in the infrastructure that best suits their needs.

When asked whether there was any opposition from BT, he said the company “won’t work with us” and that it “refused to release postcode data”.  McCabe admitted, however, that the biggest challenge in supplying North East Somerset with fast internet is “digging the trenches” and overcoming technological hurdles.

Support for the plan is said to be strong, including backing from the Duchy of Cornwall and other ‘major landowners’ in the area.

“The lifeblood of rural communities in the next 100 years is going to be how we communicate with the outside world,” local MP Jacob-Rees Mogg said at the launch of Wansdyke. “The ability to communicate at enormous speed around the globe is what is going to make preserving the countryside possible.”

A demonstration network has been setup at the Wansdyke Newton St Loe office and local farm shop, which gets between 500Mbps and 800Mbps data speeds.

McCabe said there was still time to invest in the initial £150,000 Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, which benefits from a number of government tax breaks.

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