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The village regularly left without broadband for days despite superfast upgrade

Tuesday, August 21st 2018 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

In October 2015, BT announced that high-speed broadband was coming to the village of Fernham in Oxfordshire, promising superfast speeds up to 80Mbps.

But while download speeds have improved for much of the village, frequent drop-outs have left residents without broadband for up to 10 days at a time.

The arrival of superfast broadband in 2015 was heralded by local MP Ed Vaizey, who was at the time also the minister responsible for the government’s BDUK broadband rollout, as well as Bill Murphy, BT’s managing director of next generation broadband.

Mr Murphy said BT had come across “unexpected challenges” in Fernham resulting in an unusual mix of technologies being used, but assured villagers they would get “the same benefits” as anyone else upgrading to fibre. Mr Vaizey said it was "fantastic news" for the village.

The “challenges” encountered by BT and its publicly-funded rollout partner, Better Broadband for Oxfordshire, meant that instead of laying fibre cables to connect the nearest telephone exchange to a green roadside cabinet in the village, which would have been prohibitively expensive, engineers used a wireless radio link.

Rollout programmes using public money are obliged to consider all viable technical solutions – former BDUK chief Chris Townsend told us in 2014 that decent rural coverage would require multiple technologies – as well as to make value-for-money judgements. In this case, the use of fibre cables may have exceeded a cost cap that was in place at the time, meaning no infrastructure upgrade would have been possible.

'Not fit for purpose'

However, residents including Paul Phillipson, a telecoms and technology consultant, had already expressed concern that the wireless solution was inferior to fibre and would do nothing to address issues such as crossed lines that had been plaguing villagers for some time.

Three years on those concerns appear to have been well-founded, as a number of Fernham residents have been in touch with Cable.co.uk to complain about their “substandard”, “unreliable” and “frustrating” internet connections.

While those who’ve paid for upgrades have reported an increase in maximum download speeds, a number of connections slow dramatically at peak times and regular outages leave villagers without internet access for up to 10 days at a time.

“We knew about the radio link three years ago and told [BT] it would be unreliable and over time cost more to maintain than the one mile of fibre that was needed,” said Mr Phillipson.

BT exec Bill Murphy(left) and Wantage and Didcot MP Ed Vaizey announced the arrival of superfast speeds in Fernham three years ago

“On average we have more than five days’ outage a year compared to less than an hour as we were promised. BT’s solution is not fit for purpose. We feel badly let down by Better Broadband Oxfordshire, our MP, councillors at Vale of White Horse District Council and of course BT, who are laughing all the way to the bank with bags of public money.

“Like any community, we have a mix of businesses, home workers, students and school kids, who all need access to the internet for work, homework, study, banking, DVLA, HMRC, and then farmers who have to input their data to DEFRA online, so broadband isn’t just about following Love Island on catch up TV. We need it like everyone else.”

Caroline Valerio, who runs The Woodman Inn pub in Fernham, said she relies on the internet for card payments, bookings and a till system.

“As the local pub we have suffered, and continue to suffer a lot at the hands of the poor internet,” she said. “The last outage was a nightmare and the broadband constantly drops off all the time, causing connection problems for all three things, all the time. BT seem unable to provide a fast and reliable service to us.”

'Out of alignment'

Another villager, Paul Black, said he had six visits from Openreach engineers in late 2016 and early 2017 before one admitted that the problems he’d been having were down to an issue with the radio link.

“Last month, the link went again due to the microwave dishes going out of alignment,” he said. “Anecdotally, it would appear that heat and wooden poles don’t mix.”

Neil Sutherland described the broadband service in Fernham as “clearly substandard”.

“The poor service from the radio transmission system, with its intermittent performance and recent 10-day outage, does not serve this small and isolated rural community’s needs,” he said.

“Personally speaking, I cannot rely on logging onto the three charity bank accounts that I run, nor be in touch reliably with Oxfordshire Search and Rescue call centre when I am on call.”

Owner Caroline Valerio and Fernham resident Paul Phillipson in the Woodman Inn, which relies on an internet connection but suffers frequent outages

Openreach, which since 2015 has become a legally separate company from BT, is responsible for maintaining much of the UK’s broadband infrastructure, including what it describes as a “wireless to the cabinet solution” in Fernham.

A spokesperson said the company would not comment on the issues affecting Fernham until it had carried out its investigations in full. Openreach also offered to investigate any issue affecting the service from the Fernham street cabinet, although residents have previously had little success in this regard.

'Frequent drop-offs'

Mr Phillipson said he complained to his provider BT following a recent outage and was told to contact Openreach.

“Openreach’s call handling system made it clear they would not deal with service issues and directed us back to the ISP. BT have not acknowledged our emails regarding this,” he said.

While the whole of Fernham has to contend with outages, residents living in a development of converted barns in the village haven’t even had the option of upgrading to ‘superfast’ broadband as they weren’t included in the BDUK rollout.

Superfast broadband arrived in Fernham three years ago but didn't extend to every property in the village

“We were left out of the village internet development to a wi-fi link and so still soldier on with 2Mbps at best,” said Jo Allan. “Frequent drop-offs and often much slower speeds renders much of what we try to do at home hopeless.

“Some of our residents have attempted to run businesses from the property, there are children who struggle with homework, and our inability to successfully stream any films or music is frustrating and ridiculous in 2018.”

Residents have approached both Virgin Media and rural specialists Gigaclear in the hope of bringing alternative broadband infrastructure to Fernham, but so far the village has failed to attract private investment from broadband providers. It's worth pointing out that the BDUK programme – delivered in Fernham by BT and Better Broadband for Oxfordshire – only enters areas not included in commercial rollouts.

A spokesperson for Gigaclear, which last year announced plans to reach a further 150,000 rural homes, said Fernham is on its list of "potential areas for future development" because it doesn't currently have fibre to the premises (FTTP) broadband, which sees fibre cables run all the way from the exchange, via a street cabinet, to individual properties.

However, the spokesperson said there were "no firm plans or timescales at present". Virgin Media, which is rolling out FTTP to millions of homes under its Project Lightning programme, is yet to respond to our enquiries.

Funding opportunities

While private investment remains elusive, more public money is going to be invested in rural Oxfordshire’s broadband infrastructure – with businesses likely to benefit sooner than residential properties.

Oxfordshire County Council was recently awarded £6.3m of government grant funding from DEFRA’s Rural Broadband Infrastructure Scheme and is set to publish an Invitation to Tender next month with a view to contracting a supplier in early 2019.

The council told Cable.co.uk this is expected to provide fibre broadband to about 1,300 businesses throughout Oxfordshire – and that Fernham is included in the scope of the tender.

Oxfordshire is also hoping to secure further funding for its fibre rollout plans via the government’s £200m Local Full Fibre Networks Challenge Fund.

And while state aid rules mean public funds can only be applied once to a particular premises under a subsidised scheme such as Better Broadband for Oxfordshire, the government has launched a £400m Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund and plans to provide at least 10 million properties with access to full fibre in the next decade.

Cable.co.uk has approached the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the government department responsible for the BDUK rollout, and MP Ed Vaizey's office for comment.

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