As a result of the recent questionnaire to all villagers, the Parish Council is running the following initiatives:

Project Lead - John Hooper - 01223 263729

For the last month or three the Torygraph has, day after day, included some item – a short article, a bit of Editorial content, or even some actual news (such as a comment by the head of BT’s hardware arm, Openreach) - about Broadband, and specifically about Broadband in country areas either having very poor connection rates or being absent altogether.

I did thinkof making a collection of all these items and posting them here, but then - I thought – this is after all the age of electronic communication and the Internet, so if you want to read them just google “Telegraph” and “Broadband” and you’ll get a million or so hits, some of which are quite relevant.

Or you could simply start at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/broadband/

So, what’s the problem?

The Technology

Connecting your computer up to the Internet and thus the World Wide Web requires a data pathway
from your computer to your Internet Service Provider’s computer.  This pathway can be real and physical – several lengths of British Telecom copper wire, or of somebody’s optical fibre.

Cable – or it can be rather more aetherial – an up/down satellite link, or a microwave link.  Some of these linkage means can pass data signals at a very high rate, others not so high; it depends on their nature.

Optical fibres can transmit data accurately at nearly terabit rates – that’s a million million million blips a second, which is very high – over almost any distance (the data signal suffers very little weakening, or
“attenuation”, on the way).

Copper wires, however, especially older wires (and remember that most of the BT rural network was put in place in the 1950s and ’60s), can only transmit accurately at much lower rates, and then only over quite short distances (there is substantial attentuation); rates nearly in the Gigabit range – a million million blips a second – are usual up to a 100 metres, while over distances beyond about a kilometre or so this drops down to mere tens of Megabits (millions of bits a second; Mbps). For distances of 5km and over it is hard to transmit more that half aMegabit – O.5Mb (or 500Kb) – a second with any real accuracy and reliability.

If you want just to send and receive the occasional E-mail, one or two Mbps is fine, but if you want to use iPlayer, or send and receive high-def photos, or effect real-time control of some operation the other side of the
world, you really need at least 10 Mbps.

So?

The Problem

The problem facing Harlton is that, like so many small villages that are some distance from the nearest town, we are a long way from either the nearest Telephone Exchange – ours is the Comberton one, five kilometres of copper wire away – or from the nearest Optical Fibre Cable – which is actually at Haslingfield, but doesn’t seem to be connected to anyone (the Haslingfield Cable was apparently installed by Cambridge cable, which was taken over by NTL, now part of Internet Service Provider Virgin Media)! No-one seems to know what it does, or why it’s there.

Being miles from Cable means in a nutshell that it is too expensive to connect the Village, and then our 135 or so individual houses, up to it. Digging trenches costs many thousands of pounds, and is not thought by the Provider to be worth it for the relatively small return generated by reasonable connection and monthly charges.

Being miles from the Exchange means that with the present technology – though this is improving – it is just not possible to send data sufficiently accurately along that much copper wire at any reasonable rate.

With the substantial attenuation that the data signal suffers over such a distance there are inevitably errors that occur when sending/receiving the data, and there are more errors the higher the rate.  Of course, the data incorporates error correction (so the receiving eqipment can tell when a data bit is erroneous, and request that it be re-sent), but at higher rates there are so many errors to be corrected by re-sending the relevant data bits that the effective data rate becomes much, much lower).

The distance at which the whole thing becomes self-defeating is around 5 km, over which the maximum reasonably-accurate data rate is about 0.5 Mbps.  Perhaps we should, therefore, consider ourselves lucky that we get any Broadband at all!

This, then, is where we stand at present.

(A) We do have a Broadband connection.  It is by 5 km of BT copper wire to the Comberton Exchange.
(B) We do not have (Optical Fibre) Cable.  The nearest Cable is operated by Virgin Media, and passes through Haslingfield, and no-one seems to beconnected to it.

Our local MP, Andrew Lansley

Without, I think, any prompting Mr Lansley has written to the Parish Council regarding the issue of Broadband speeds and how this affects the Parish.

His letter, dated 25th September 2009, says as follows:-

“I am concerned that South Cambridgeshire does not benefit from fast broadband and that this is putting businesses and others who require internet access at a significant disadvantage.  I have, following contact
with several of my constituents, been informed that many homes have connection speeds which are signficantly below the Governments [sic] recommended minimum connection speeds of 2MB [sic].

“I would be grateful if you could inform me, as to your knowledge, if, and to what extent how, slow Broadband speeds are affecting people in your Parish.

“If it would be convenient, could you convey this request via any Parish e-mail alert or in a Parish Newsletter, asking those affected to write to me at the below address or to email me via lansleya@parliament.uk.”

The “below address” is 153 St Neots Road, Hardwick, Cambridge CB23 7QJ.

The Survey

In an effort to assess the actual Broadband connection situation in the Village a Survey has been conducted – people were requested to respond to a Mail-drop to every house (Andy the Postman did the Mail-drop for us,
refusing a honorarium for so doing; be generous with his Christmas Box). About 135 Survey papers went out; 45 answers have so far come back.

The Questions (and the average answers), were as follows:-

1 At home, do you use E-mail and/or the Internet? Yes
2 If “yes” . . .Do you have Broadband? Yes
3 What is your postal address? From one end of the village to the other, it doesn’t seem to make much difference
4 What is your download rate? From 0.2Mbps to 1.5Mbps . .
5 What is the rate you’re actually paying for? From 2Mbps to 20Mbps. . . .
6 Who is your ISP? Mostly BT, a few VirginMedia/Pipex/Sky/Demon/Tiscali/PlusNet/Orange/
oneTel/Madasafish/AOL/Supanet/Waitrose- it doesn’t seem to make any difference
7 How reliable is your connection? From good to awful
8 Would you sign up for Cable? Mostly Yes

It is pretty slow (the Survey shows that mostly the connection rate is around the 0.5 Mbps mark (though some people report nearer 1 Mbps).

So, what is BT doing about this?

On the one hand BT/Openreach seems to be doing very little – though a year or so ago they replaced the main village telephone cabling with a nice fat black cable (which I suspect includes an optical fibre ready for when a connection to it becomes available), and a month or so ago they replaced a lot of the wiring at the Eversden end.

And in theory the Comberton Exchange will itself be uprated in the next couple of years, so that it can make better use of the existing copper wire, and then presuambly that wire will itself be replaced, possible by optical fibre.

Meanwhile …

On the other hand BT suggest that steps could be taken by individuals to make better use of the data signal they do actually get – some the errors occurring in the received data bits may be caused downstream of the house BT Master phone socket, between it and your modem/router, not upstream (outside your house, on the incoming telephone line side).

To help with this BT have introduced the Iplate (also known as the BT Broadband Accelerator).

In a nutshell, this is a filter which is supposed to prevent any distortion of the data signal caused by interference from other signals generated in the ‘phone extension wiring throughout your house (such distortion causes yet more errors in an already error-prone data signal, and correcting these thus reduces even further the effective data rate).

You can read all about this at

http://www.shop.bt.com/products/bt-iplate—bt-broadband-accelerator-58LT.html

(and I strongly recommend you read the Customer Reviews, which started off at the beginning of 2009 very damning, but more recently have become quite laudatory).

Here is a selection of the things BT say:-

“Did you know the telephone extension wiring in your house can pick up all sorts of electrical noise and interference from TV’s, lights and other everyday electrical equipment? This interference can affect your broadband signal resulting in a slower broadband speed.

“BT has developed the I-Plate, a unique filter that helps stop any interference affecting the broadband signal. As long as you have a suitable BT Master socket, and extension wiring, the I-Plate can help.

“In tests the I-Plate has been shown to boost line speeds typically by 1.5Mbps. The actual change will vary from house to house. Although speed improvements are likely, they can’t be guaranteed. The improvements in speed will take up to 2 weeks to come through so that line stability is not affected. Even if it doesn’t improve the speed the I-Plate can help stabilise your broadband line making it more reliable.

“Do you have extension wiring – the internal telephone wiring, usually a small white cable, which often runs along your skirting boards or outside your house. It connects the main socket to any extension sockets you have. It doesn’t matter if you use the sockets or not, as long as the wiring is there the I-Plate may help.  But you MUST have a master telephone socket with a horizontal line across the front – with other Master sockets types the I-Plate is NOT suitable.”

There are pictures of the right and wrong Master socket types on a sub-page of the Site named above.

Does anyone have one?  Does it work?  I have E-mailed the Village – where I know the E-address – asking these two questions.  The first 15 or so answers were, variously, “No, we don’t have one” and “Don’t know what you’re talking about”.  The next answer was “Yes.  Not only have I tried it, but it better than doubled my download speed (from less than 0.6Mbps to better than 1Mbps).”  So it would seem worth a try!

And what about the Haslingfield Cable?

I have written to Virgin Media at their Head Office address (General Enquiries, Virgin Media, PO Box 333, Matrix Court, Swansea SA7 9ZJ).  This is what I said:-

“I write on behalf of the Parish Council of Harlton, a small village 5 miles to the SouthWest of Cambridge.

“At the moment the inhabitants of Harlton have to rely on BT to provide broadband access to the Web.  Our only gateway into world of E-mail and the Internet and all it provides is the Telephone Exchange at Comberton, to which we are connected by five kilometres of old-fashioned copper wire, and that 5km means that, regardless of how much we may pay our Internet Service Providers, everyone’s broadband speed is limited to about 0.5Mbits – better than dial-up, certainly, but nevertheless pretty awful in this day of iPlayer and the like.

“In the neighbouring village of Haslingfield there is, we understand, cable.  We are not entirely sure what this cable delivers, nor where it goes, though we have been told that it extends from Cambridge to Royston, via at least Barrington and Foxton, and that it was originally installed by Cambridge Cable.  It seems that Cambridge Cable was acquired by NTL, and that NTL became a part of Virgin Media.  If, therefore, we seek information about the Haslingfield cable then it would appear that we should direct our questions at you, Virgin Media.  But that has proven very difficult to do! Hence this posting – and if it’s to the wrong Forum please forgive me andpoint me in the write direction.

“As a village Harlton is looking generally to up its broadband speed and thus improve its access to the Web and so forth.  So far it has proven difficult to get any sensible comments from BT – or rather, from Openreach - as to how and when the Comberton Exchange, and our connection thereto, might be significantly upgraded, although “2010″ and “2011″ do get bandied around.

“But if the cable through Haslingfield provides broadband access, and if it could be “extended” to Harlton, all our troubles would be over. My questions then are: does the Haslingfield cable enable broadband connectivity, and could it be – what would it take for it to be – extended to Harlton?”

And Virgin’s reply…

I received by E-mail from “support@virgin.net” <support@virgin.net> a reply which revealed that my letter had been routed round internally a bit, and said:-

“Thanks for your email.

“Please note that Virgin Media is a merger of different companies and we deal with only Virgin Media National (Non-cable/ADSL Broadband formerly known as Virgin.net) related issues.

“If you have any queries on Cable Broadband services, I would request you to contact the Customer Services on 0845 454 1111 (Option 4). The executives over there will help you further.

“If you need any further assistance please contact us again, or visit the following address:

”  http://www.virgin.net/helpme/

“Many Thanks

“Brijesh
“Virgin Media National Support”

I am still working on this.

One of the suggestions that emerged from last year’s Parish Council questionnaire and subsequent discussion was for a Parish Council project aimed at doing something to provide a meeting place for village residents. Many people felt that since the closure of the village shop, there were reduced opportunities to chat with friends and get the latest gossip.  When the idea emerged, we called it the Community Drop-In Project.

It has taken some time to get the idea off the ground, but a small project team led by Margaret Robinson is ready to go with the project’s first event.  The event will consist of a non-profit-making coffee morning with the additional focus of a “fun auction”.

The event has three purposes:

  • to give village residents the opportunity to meet friends and neighbours and have a chat over a cup of coffee
  • to give members of the drop-in project team the opportunity to speak directly to village residents about what they would like the project team to do for future events (see below for some ideas we already have).
  •  to give village residents the opportunity to sell any unwanted Christmas presents, any surplus home produce (apple pies, jam, etc), or anything else they want to try to sell in a fun auction.  The proceeds of any sales would go to the provider of the item.  We already have one interesting item to be auctioned.  The chairman of the Parish Council has agreed to auction a morning of his time.  The winner of this item will get a mornings help from Peter di Mambro with gardening or decorating or car-washing or washing-up or whatever.

Tony Vernon-Smith has kindly agreed to act as our auctioneer.  Please come along and bring anything you would like to try to sell.  (We will not be able to sell any electrical items.)  The event is scheduled for Saturday 30th January.  Tea, coffee and biscuits will be available from 10:30am and the fun auction will start at about 11:00am.  There will be a small entry charge of £1 to cover the costs of the tea, coffee and biscuits.

We are hoping for a big turnout.  Anyone in the village who would like to come is welcome.  We can provide transport for anyone with mobility difficulties.

Our ideas for future events include:

  • guest speakers (eg U3A, NHS, DWP, Social Services, Cambridge Univ…………)
  • alternative therapy trial sessions
  • lunches
  • bingo
  • book and magazine swap-shop

Come and tell us your ideas and what you think of ours.  You can also tell us what you would like the project to be called.  We are not too keen on “The Community Drop-in Project”.  Other suggestions have included “The Harlton Hub” and “Centrepoint”.  Do you have any ideas?

You will start to see the poster on the next page appearing around the village soon, to advertise the event.  Please support us on 30th January.

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Visit these pages regularly to see how the projects are progressing

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