Here, two of our volunteers offer an insight on what it involves to build your own gigabit broadband network.

Jane Fishwick – Burston – East Anglia

Jane Fishwick and husband, Brian, at the Burston cabinet.

It has been a long time coming but once we started the build it all happened very quickly.

A group in the village started to discuss working with B4RN in 2017.  Many things changed, for the better, during that time not least of which the Government Gigabit voucher scheme which greatly helped the project. Our one big obstacle was the railway line bisecting the villages, this took about 6 months to resolve and we were still not convinced that the project could be viable without overcoming this hurdle.  Eventually we had permission to use the BT duct under the line and then it was full steam ahead.

We formed a steering group of 6 – all with different skills in IT, sales and marketing, organising and civils. Some also had a lot of “kit” and know how from working on the Thelverton Estate project nearby.

We were fortunate that most of the infrastructure area was owned by one landowner very committed to bringing gigabit broadband to the village.

Signing up was quite slow, which was made even more difficult due to the pandemic as contacting people directly to inform and explain to them the advantages and benefits B4RN could bring was very difficult. But we got to the required funding and sign up goals eventually and the project was signed off.

In the meantime, BT had installed a fibre enabled cabinet in the centre of Burston and then some fibre to the home in a few properties in Shimpling, just to complicate things – but we kept going.

The core team got to work obtaining the rest of the required wayleaves, mapping and learning the different skills required to physically start the project.

Jorj, Nick and Ashley [from B4RN] helped us greatly to put our project into action.

We broke ground on the 17th August 2020 and had some unbearably hot weather, reaching 33o c .  We had gangs of people out, some from adjoining villages, pulling out kilometres of ducting but a lot of the time it was the core group and our contractor Clive who did most of the work.

In 10 weeks we estimate that we have laid 25-30km of ducting through mostly arable fields so timing was critical to trench between the crops coming out and the next crop being drilled, sometimes less than a 24 hour window!  In East Anglia, we have huge fields with lots of drainage ditches requiring very substantial ditch pipes which is probably unique to our group of projects.

We went from near drought conditions to waterlogged in a matter of 3 weeks, so conditions on this mostly clay soil became very difficult.  However, 10 weeks on, about 100 properties have ducting to their curtilage, approximately 30 properties on this first phase are being connected immediately including the first pub in Norfolk, the Burston Crown, 10 businesses and the primary school. Several households are waiting for their contracts to expire.

The joy of doing this project has been getting to know many more people in the villages and learning lots of new skills.

We still have a lot more of the project to deliver, but with households and businesses using the service we hope that convincing people of the advantages will get a lot easier.

Gina Barney – Cautley – Yorkshire Dales

Gina fitting a chamber lid in typical B4RN weather!

“B4RN is great. I love it”, says Gina. Perhaps no surprise given her background as Director of Networking at Manchester University.

She says putting the network in Cautley was “real fun”, adding she and other volunteers ploughed on whatever the weather.

Gina recalls one particular challenge, “problems such as the River Rawthey were solved with a farmer’s bow and arrow, some binder string, two cubic metres of concrete and a wire catenary across the 30metre gorge.”

Gina’s well known among local volunteers and admits to telling them off for things like getting chambers wrong. She know she’s not perfect though: “On the very last section of 34km of duct to the Cross Keys Inn what do I do? Crimp the duct and get a telling off myself.”

Meeting people is a highlight for Gina. In 2018, she needed a wayleave. The farmer turned her away. Gina went back on the day of the local elections. She picks up the story on the 3rd of May that year, at 8pm: “We stood on the doorstep for 20 minutes and he eventually let me in. It was dark so I asked if he would put the light on. We sat on the floor for an hour just talking and he missed casting his vote. I got the wayleave; and a friend. He’s sadly is no longer with us.”

Gina doing a house install. Not averse to small spaces!

Gina enjoys doing house installations. “The faces of the residents are unbelievable”, she says, “this octogenarian woman turns up waving a one metre bit on the end of a SDS impact drill.” She’s drilled 80 holes in residents’ walls for free (although a post-job tipple of sherry and whisky has occurred as thanks). She’s not put off by lying in cupboards!

With Cautley done, Gina’s been helping out Lunds. It’s a rugged patch – a gateway further north for the B4RN network to Mallerstang.

It took a year to get 12 properties on, despite Covid.

Gina has a lot of time for the B4RN staff and contractors too. She recalls helping one contractor retrieve his favourite “puncher” from under the A683. Then there’s a memorable anecdote about having to shoo away an ostrich from one of our splicing team!

Gina says she’s not too old to learn: “On one occasion in Lunds this keen and younger volunteer questioned my ability to walk a rough track near Lady Anne’s Highway to sort a route out. He was being considerate. Off we go with me leading and showing off. What happens? I slip in a beck. There was a lot of swearing. Down to Sedbergh Health Centre for 11 stitches.”

So is it time to stop? “I really can’t. I have learnt a lot about rural networks. What I most like is meeting and talking to people (and drilling holes). They all eventually trust me and now I know where all the house keys are in Cautley.

“The next project (subject to B4RN approval) is on the outskirts of Sedbergh. Another 19 properties. Piece of cake.”

There was no Health and Safety guide for this scenario!