‘Forget BT, I’m the village internet provider’
“Bigger villages nearby have better internet,” he added. “It wasn’t worth providers’ money to improve our connection, so they didn’t.”
Longer distances to exchanges slow down speeds, and rivers and hills make it more difficult to lay fibre cables in rural areas, increasing the costs to companies of providing superfast broadband. Firms are not obligated to offer people in rural regions the same deals and service as those in well-connected areas, meaning that many customers find themselves stranded with little to no internet or have to pay much higher prices than city dwellers.
Mr Bell runs his own software company, which looks after the IT of small businesses. “Running an IT company without internet is pretty much impossible,” he said. “The lack of connectivity was really hitting my business.
“I had two phone lines installed but the situation was still terrible. So two years ago I decided to buy my own direct fibre connection.”
Fibre wires allow far higher speeds than traditional copper cabling. It cost Mr Bell more than £10,000 to install his direct connection and he now pays monthly for its upkeep.
But he said: “The connection did wonders for my business, and I realised that it might be possible to share it out.”
Mr Bell managed to share the connection across Upton using a mast on a hill on a neighbouring farm. His control centre, in his wife’s shed, is filled with routers on one side and garden tools on the other.
Of the 40 or so houses in the hamlet, more than 90pc are now connected to Mr Bell’s broadband network.
For £45 a month plus VAT they receive an internet connection of around 20 mbit/s, with telephone calls included. “I charge enough to cover my costs,” Mr Bell said. “Residents can now watch TV online, Skype their grandchildren, do online banking – all of which they couldn’t do before.
“It’s very cheap to make calls through my connection, so for many their phone bills have gone down considerably. Everyone has been very grateful; people buy me drinks in the pub all the time.
“Good broadband is like running water: you don’t notice it when it works, but you realise just how important it is when it doesn’t. I think of the internet as a basic public service, on a par with gas, electricity and water.”
Upton’s DIY network hasn’t just connected villagers to the outside world – it’s also reconnecting neighbours to each other.
Mr Bell said: “We try to be better,
British villagers are fighting back against poor broadband, finds Marianna Hunt ‘Good broadband is like running water – you don’t notice it until it doesn’t work’
and more personal, than BT. We have no foreign call centres. If anyone has a problem they just pop round and knock on my door. I pedal around the village on my bike visiting my neighbours to connect up their routers, and climb on to their roofs to install masts.
“We live in the hamlet’s old post office, and most days I feel like a 21stcentury postman, connecting us to the rest of the world.”
Upton is not the only rural community looking for alternative ways to get better broadband. Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) is a non-profit society that aims to bring fibre-optic broadband to isolated areas of northern England. It uses community fundraising to cover the costs of installation.
A spokesman for B4RN said: “Residents of the towns that apply to us all muck in for their fibre connection: they raise funds together, help to dig the ground for the cables, or bring tea and cake for those digging.”
Nick Bell spent £10,000 installing his own broadband and now offers it to neighbours