Bringing full fibre broadband to the region's villages
PUBLISHED: 07:30 17 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:22 19 September 2019
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Chief executive of County Broadband Lloyd Felton is on a mission to enhance the broadband experience of rural communities across East Anglia.
It has long been a complaint of rural communities in East Anglia that their broadband internet service flickers between almost non-existent and not fast enough.
One company that has been working to rectify this situation for the past 16 years is County Broadband, a Colchester-based business that has already delivered wireless broadband to over 100 villages in Essex and Suffolk.
Now, following a £46m investment from Norfolk-based asset management company Aviva Investors, County Broadband is rolling out an ultrafast full fibre broadband network across villages in the East of England, with the aim of providing a major boost to under-served rural communities and businesses.
Early days of wireless
Heading up County Broadband is chief executive Lloyd Felton, who admits his first forays into broadband provision back in 2003 were "a means to an end" to provide a workable internet service to a couple of villages where he and his friends lived.
Seeing a business opportunity to grow this service, the delivery model was to work with communities to erect a local antenna to provide wireless broadband to their homes.
There were teething pains with this first venture as these early technologies quickly became outdated and the limitations of providing broadband over a wireless network became apparent.
"We had to completely upgrade the network four times - that's a big job when you are trying to grow that network at the same time," said Mr Felton.
The company continues to support a wireless broadband service to many villages in and around Essex and Suffolk including Edwardstone and Rendlesham, and the lessons the company has learnt about community engagement have proved invaluable for the firm's latest scheme.
Mr Felton says many rural communities suffer from a poor broadband service because their high speed fibre cables only go as far as the green roadside telephone cabinet - beyond this point many homes are connected via old copper wire infrastructures, some dating as far back as Victorian times.
What's more, he says, some broadband providers market their service as 'full fibre' when in fact they are using these standard copper telephone lines for the last part of the network. This set up limits internet speeds to around 40 megabits per second (Mbps) in rural areas and hampers the ability to upgrade them to meet future requirements, he adds
County Broadband's approach is to install a high-tech so-called 'Fibre-To-The-Premises' (FTTP) network which involves putting in fibre optic cables directly to premises. He says this can deliver internet speeds of up to an impressive 1,000 Mbps - more than 20 times faster than the UK average - directly into some of the most difficult-to-reach homes and businesses.
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The ability to build this new network has been made possible by the £46m investment from Aviva Investors, which, says Mr Felton, means the company's expansion is not dependent upon public funds or from any financial contributions from home or business owners.
"They [Aviva Investors] aren't a private equity house who are looking to turn a profit in three years and sell out - they are in it for 50, 60 to 100 years," said Mr Felton.
"Aviva don't sell their assets - what they buy, they keep. It means we can take a long term view - already we are putting things into the market that beat both anything in terms of speed and price that's available on the market.
"We are doing that looking at the next 30 years, not the next two years."
With so much work to do the company has been recruiting and anticipates it will employ around 50 people by the end of year, most of them working at offices in Aldham on the outskirt of Colchester.
County Broadband recently completed its first full fibre build in the village of Cornish Hall End near Braintree and is set to start work in numerous other villages on the Essex-Suffolk border, such as Foxearth, Pentlow, Bulmer, Gestingthorpe and Pebmarsh, between now and Christmas. Ipswich-based contractor, Telec Networks, is working with County Broadband on this first phase.
Mr Felton says the company plans to continue working across Essex and to also approach villages in Suffolk. It has plans for a "major campaign" in Norfolk, not least because of the Aviva connection, and hopes to also build in villages in Cambridgeshire.
"By the end of 2020 we expect our networks will reach 50,000 homes," he added.
Mr Felton said to deliver full fibre to each village takes between nine and 12 months.
"We try and engage with all stakeholders - we hold village meetings, send out mailings, and meet with local parish councils and any social groups. We try and make sure that everyone knows what we are trying to do.
"Our ethos is we will only build the network if people tell us they want it. If enough people don't tell us the likelihood is we won't build it. We ask people to make a commitment [to sign up to the service], but we offer a free connection, a discount over the first six months and there are no up front cost, We have lowered the barrier to entry as far as we can."
Mr Felton says, when the times comes to put in the fibre network infrastructure, the company's approach is how "fast can we deploy with minimum disruption".
"We go underground and overhead. If there is an option to use existing infrastructure we are licenced to use utility ducts and telegraph wires and are nearing getting a licence to use electrical wires."
He says one of his biggest challenges is separating County Broadband's service from those offered by the traditional broadband companies.
Mr Felton continued: "They all look very corporate, so they make it difficult for us, as a completely different local business, local employer, providing a service that outstrips there's, to actually be heard. There is so much white noise out there.
"We watch people completely misinterpret what we are offering and just think we are another broadband service but what we are really trying to sell is the next level of infrastructure."