Broadband in Upper Lambourn, February 2022 update – almost connected, at last…

There are a number of services most of us take for granted and, increasingly, require in order to function and survive. Electricity, water and telephone have long been the three main ones but in the last 20 years broadband has added itself to the list. Almost all the country is enabled to some extent or another but a few non-con pockets remain. Many of these are in wild, remote parts of the country, in moors or mountains: others are not. One of these was – and currently still is, though that’s finally about to change – in parts of Upper Lambourn in affluent West Berkshire. This is a dozen miles from Swindon and a bit more from Newbury, both regularly cited as hotspots of digital innovation. For Upper Lambourn’s residents, however, these hotspots might as well have been on the dark side of the moon.

Several efforts were made by local residents over the last 15 years, alternately led by Mark Christopher (who runs Christopher Rushbrooke which installs AV systems) and Jane Marsh at Park Farm, to get this sorted out. Lobbying, emails, grant applications and all the rest led to several promises from several different suppliers; all were broken. Many residents must have resigned themselves to the fact that connectivity just wasn’t going to happen. Until early 2020 this would have been of mainly social and domestic inconvenience. Lockdown put paid to that. Like everyone else, residents of Upper Lambourn now had to work from home. Some were running business there already – how, in these circumstances, I can’t imagine – but everyone now had to be online pretty much 24/7, often fighting for bandwidth with home-educating children. Something needed to be done.

While writing about this in September 2020, my eye was caught by news of a consultation that seemed to be relevant to local residents. On checking with Mark Christopher, it transpired that none were aware of it. Further research with Superfast Berkshire (SfB) – now known as West Berkshire Digital Infrastructure Group – and others revealed to us that this was aimed at potential suppliers, not customers. I had several conversations with Lynne Wilson from SfB who explained to me the various schemes, procedures and protocols which were involved in enabling a particular area. These were of a complexity I was completely unprepared for but I summarised these as best I could in this post and passed this on to Mark. I also got in touch with the Lambourn ward member Howard Woollaston. Since then he too has been pushing for a result: his regular ward updates, which we’ve been publishing since June 2020, contain no fewer than 16 references to “broadband” in this part of the parish.

This time the efforts seem to have been rewarded. On 20 January 2022, Mark Christopher was able to tell the other residents that most of the necessary work had been done or was in progress and that people should be able order their fibre contracts by mid February. “Fibre”, note – none of this last-mile copper stuff. When connected, the speeds compared to what has gone before will be supersonic, as if a Tiger Moth had suddenly turned into a Concorde.

“To describe this as a long, frustrating and complicated process would be a huge understatement,” Mark Christopher told me. “We would push really hard for a year or so only to find that the supplier had let us down and we had to start all over again, often with a different set of government schemes. And, guess what – information about these is all online. Many thanks to Penny Post, to Lynne and to Howard; to Richard Benyon, Laura Farris; and to Jane and the Lambourn outliers collective for help with getting this over the line. At long last, we’re about to become part of the 21st century!”

The moral of this is that if you want to get something sorted you can’t always rely on the state or its agencies or on private firms. Broadband was once a luxury but is now a necessity. Getting government or municipal information, completing a tax return, submitting farm paperwork to DEFRA, teaching/learning from home and meeting physically distant colleagues are just some examples of the things which are now organised on the basis that you have a fast two-way modern service. Increasingly little tolerance is being given to those who don’t. There are governmental ambitions to have the whole country thus connected but, so far as I’m aware, no legislation to compel telecom providers to supply this in cases where it’s uneconomic for them to do so. One small battle has been won as a result of direct action.

One good result of Covid may have been to make it clear just how important this service is and thus increased calls to make it universally available. Any remaining not-spots or low-spots are likely to become a political issue. Some people still aren’t online because of personal choice: but at least in Upper Lambourn anyone who wants or needs broadband will very soon be able to get it – and at speeds many of us will envy.

Brian Quinn

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