Can’t Get Online Week was an England-wide tour of Rural Broadband “notspots” conducted by John Popham with sponsorship from the Country Land and Business Association in October/November 2011. The tour visited communities in Hampshire, Essex, Norfolk, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Lancashire, North Yorkshire, Cumbria, County Durham, and Northumberland, asking local people to talk about the pain caused to their daily lives, at work, in education, and at home, by the lack of a decent broadband connection.
Two and a half years on, most of the communities visited still don’t have decent broadband, although some are on the list to be upgraded as part of the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK programme, and others are bidding for resources from the Rural Community Broadband Fund. One community, in particular, is using its own resources and local volunteers to provide 1000Mbps connections to remote rural dwellers. But, even if the needs of these communities are met, there are still many others out there who suffer exactly the problems detailed on this site.
Here are the key messages from local residents distilled into one video.
The final day of the challenge began with torrential rain, but the mood was brightened immediately when I walked into Moorsholm Memorial Hall to be greeted by some 50 residents, together with the local MP, Tom Blenkinsopp, who were passionate and committed in their determination to do something about the poor quality of broadband in their North Yorkshire village. As resident after resident pointed out, Moorsholm is not particularly remote, and yet there are people there who get landline broadband speeds as low as 68kbps. Particularly frustrating is that next-door neighbours can get wildly different speeds to each other. There were tales about the impossibility of doing business online; about having to move away to study, and a story about the lady who is unable to use Skype to see her grandchildren in Australia.
The really good news is that Moorsholm seems to have a plan coming together to address its problems, led by local resident, Trevor Watson. As Tom Blenkinsop, MP agreed, poor broadband has become a powerful catalyst for community action in the village.
Here, Moorsholm residents tell their stories.
and Tom Blenkinsop MP, praises the community’s efforts
I was sorry to leave Moorsholm, where the community spirit was truly infectious, but it was back in the car and over the foggy and very wet heights of the North Yorkshire Moors, heading for the next venue, The Triton Inn, at Sledmere, near Driffield. This visit was covered by BBC TV’s “Look North”, and was remarkable for the only occasion when the WiBE failed to get a signal.
Here Simon Ullyott talks about the problems of trying to do business online in the area.
When we emerged from the Triton Inn, the sun had come out and it shone all the way to the next venue, in the church at South Stainley, near Harrogate. This was the final venue of the week, and there was another interesting community gathering. Discussion started with residents venting their frustration with their current lack of connectivity, again in a not particularly remote community, on the main road between Harrogate and Ripon. As the discussion progressed, resolution grew to do something about the situation, and Parish Councillor, John Denton, agreed to call people together so they could explore the options.
Here John Denton and Hugh Lewis talk about the problems poor broadband causes them.
It was perhaps fitting that the final event of Can’t Get Online Week ended with a practical demonstration of the issues such communities face. One resident received a call that her son had missed the school bus because he had been kept behind after school to talk about the late submission of his online homework. The homework had been late because he had to wait to visit his grandmother in London to do it, not being able to do it at home. As the meeting ended, A.J. and his mum arrived, and A.J. agreed to talk on camera about the issue.
And so, that was that. What a week it was.
I’ll post some more reflective thoughts when I have time, but at the moment, the overwhelming feelings are tiredness and inspiration. It is truly inspiring that communities are using their frustration with poor connections to come together and do something about it.
The tiredness might have something to do with more than 1300 miles on the car’s clock
Day 5 started at the Northern Farming Conference in Sedgefield, County Durham, where there were opportunities to interview a number of people, including the Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, Jim Paice MP
President of the CLA, William Worsley
and land agent, Alistair Cochrane
And then it was back in the car for the short journey to the Durham village of Byers Green, and one of the liveliest meetings of the week. This was an event organised by the good people of Digital Durham. I was told there had been a passionate public meeting the previous evening with 220 people packing out the Village Hall. A lot of thought had obviously gone into building the village’s case, and a good cross section of people were present at the meeting. They were certainly at the earliest stages of a campaign, but it was clear that there is a real momentum behind their determination to get decent broadband, and it is an issue which is bringing the community together. Byers Green is not far from the connurbations of Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor, but is still too far from the exchange for anyone to get more than 0.5Mbps. I was sorry to leave Byers Green because the people’s passion was really infectious. But, before I did, I was able to capture some of the points people were making.
Cllr. Kevin Toms
Then it was back in the car, and off to Northumberland. Just north of the Angel of the North, the week’s journey reached the 1000 mile mark
It was 4pm when I arrived at the Goats on the Roof Cafe in Fontburn, Northumberland. This may have been the most remote location on the tour, and a good group was gathered, particularly focused around the people running the Fontburn Internet Project, which has connected up 11 households in the area to a wireless network. Unfortunately, there were no goats on the roof at the time, but an excellent discussion ensued about how the work on developing internet access can be a catalyst for community development.
One of the interesting aspects of the evening was what happened when I plugged in the WiBE (Wireless Broadband Extender) loaned to me by Richard Dix of Rural Broadband. No one can get a mobile phone signal at the cafe, but the WiBE was able to get a connection of more than 4Mbps, and we were able to watch BBC iPlayer and conduct a Skype video call with Richard.
Here are some of the stories from Fontburn.
Louise and Julie from Fontburn Internet Project
Fontburn was the furthest point north of the Can’t Get Online Week tour, which had started nearly on the south coast on Sunday. Now, the journey turned south for the final day in Yorkshire.
As Day 4 began, around 7:30, Chris Conder handed me the phone, saying that BBC Radio Lancashire just wanted to do a line test ahead of a live interview at 8:20. As I took the phone, a voice said “putting you through to the studio now” and, within seconds I was live on air.
After that surprise, we headed off to Wray Village Institute for an intense morning of video and audio interviews with people from surrounding villages.
There were some incredible tales of the problems not being online has caused. in their lives, most of which they tell themselves in the videos that follow. But, one particular story stands out, that told by Ted Lester about his children who got detentions because they couldn’t do their online homework. There was a strong suggestion that the children did not want to admit not being able to get online at home as that would be a stigma among their friends.
Nicholas Race, from Lancaster University, explaining the background to Wray Village as a Living Lab
Mick and Tom
Keith, Margaret and Edward
And an audio interview with Karen Denby
From Wray, it was on to the Westmorland Showground in Cumbria for another lively group discussion. This included a passionate rant by Jennet about her problems with getting any sort of broadband connection from BT and her frustrations with getting the situation redressed.
I was also able to get some background from County Broadband Plan Hub Co-ordinator Cath Davenport, on progress with the Plan in her part of Cumbria.
From there it was on to Garstang for a meeting of the CLA Lancashire Committee, and an opportunity to talk to some of those present about their involvement in broadband initiatives.
Past-President of the CLA, Rodney Swarbrick told me why it is important for the CLA to support the development of rural broadband.
Martin Harker, Manager of the Knowsley Estate, described how he has helped to bring fast fibre broadband to the estate
And, CLA North Director, Douglas Chalmers described some of the things the CLA is doing to support Rural Broadband initiatives
And then it was on to the Cyberbarn, the country’s first rural broadband demonstrator and training centre, in Warcop, Cumbria
Day 3 began with a welcome later start than the previous 2 days. Leaving Birmingham, I headed to Stoke-on-Trent to pick up Clare White, who had kindly organised a group meeting in Leek, and then it was on to the delightful Nicholson Institute, (scene of lectures by Oscar Wilde, so Clare told me) to meet an interesting group of people assembled from the surrounding rural communities.
We had a stimulating debate about the pros and cons of promoting the benefits of being online, and what that might mean for community-building in Leek’s rural hinterland. One of the topics centred on the community organisations whose membership is literally dying off due to their inability to recruit younger members, but which cannot, or will not, experiment with online engagement which could reach out to a potential younger membership. We learned, also, that those organisations which are attempting to reach out online are, as elsewhere, being frustrated by the lack of connectivity, both of Internet landlines and mobile phone signals. This was the first time during the Week that I encountered some active resistance to the idea that connecting up rural communities is a good thing. I think that I, and others present, were able to chip away at a good portion of that resistance, but not kill it completely.
Here, Melissa Worth and Clare White summarise some of this issues at the meeting, and speculate on what might have changed as a result.
Leaving Leek, after a lovely lunch outside in the November sunshine, I dropped Clare off in Burslem, and continued on to Trentham Gardens, where I had arranged to meet Mike Smith. Mike is an active resident of the North Shropshire town of Market Drayton, and had hoped to organise a Can’t Get Online Week event in the nearby village of Adderley, which I had intended as the next port of call on the tour. However, despite strenuous efforts, Mike had been unable to overcome considerable resistance to the idea that anything could be done about the village’s problems. So, we agreed to meet for a chat, during which I filled Mike in on a number of initiatives being taken by communities around the country to meet their own broadband needs.
Later on in the evening, Mike emailed me to let me know that, armed with the information I had given him, he had had a conversation with an influential local councillor who now agreed that a number of villages in the area needed to look at taking action to address their broadband deficit.
And so, it was onto the M6 to head north to Lancashire to join a meeting of the B4rn project (http://www.b4rn.co.uk)
Having accepted Wendy Kennerley‘s kind offer of accommodation on the
South coast on the first night of the Challenge it meant a very early
start to day two. I managed to avoid rush hour hold-ups on the M25 and
pulled over into a lay-by on the A12 to talk live on BBC Radio Norfolk
about the afternoon’s planned visit to Sedgeford. Then it was on to
the Village Hall at Little Horkseley in Essex, a few miles beyond
Another lively group soon gathered, of 20 or so people, drawn from a
number of local parishes, all with poor, or non-existent Internet
connections. An interesting theme that emerged was that a number of
those present were small business owners, who would prefer to work
from home, but are forced to maintain business premises in the town in
order to do business online. There was a strong theme about the anger
of local young people in not being able to partake in social
networking with their peers. Poignant stories included tales of
youngsters completing online homework by texting answers to friends
with good broadband connections so they could complete it for them,
and the daughter who had to do her online homework at 2am because it
was the only time when there were few enough people on the local network to get any kind of connection at all. The presence of Lloyd Felton from local wireless broadband supplier, County Broadband, who connected the village hall up to the world for the morning, gave people food for thought. A really useful element was the strong representation from Parish Councillors, and, as the meeting closed, there was resolution to take the lessons learned from the session back to their Parish Councils to begin the process of organising local connectivity solutions.
Local business owner, Steve Clarke voiced some of the typical concerns raised at the Little Horkesley event:
From Little Horkesley, it was off for another long drive, through Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, to Sedgeford, near Hunstanton. The drive through chocolate-box villages, on windy roads, served to highlight the nature of the #cantgetonline mission. During this section of the journey, the car mileometre clocked up 500 miles for the week so far.
Richard told me what local people had been saying about the broadband situation in the area:
The Week then took an almost bizarre twist, when the photographer from the Eastern Daily Press arrived and decided he wanted an unusual photograph. This resulted in Richard, Elliott from Three, and myself posing with iPads in a cornfield
Then it was back in the car for another long drive, this time to a overnight stop in Birmingham. There was just time to connect up the WiBE which Richard has lent me to test for the rest of the week,
As I left Norfolk, a five minute package on the Sedgeford event played on BBC Radio Norfolk, and I am grateful to the sterling work put in by Richard Dix and Sally Smith of the CLA which made this the highest profile section of the tour so far.
It was another tiring, but exhilarating day. And it proved, again, that broadband can be a real stimulus for galvanising community action.
Day one of Can’t Get Online Week has proved as interesting and challenging as I thought. The first obstacle was the long drive south from Huddersfield to the New Forest, which meant an early start.
A fairly uneventful journey passed surprisingly quickly, meaning that I arrived at the venue, the Bold Forester Pub, in Marchwood, Hampshire, in plenty of time. I’d been promised support with connectivity for the event from satellite provider, Hughes Europe, and I was glad to see Zak, their engineer, arrive about 20 minutes after I did, as I had been starting to panic, without internet or mobile phone connections.
Zak set up his equipment, we got online, and then people started to arrive. In the end, there were about 35 people present, an impressive turnout as the section of the village which really struggles with connectivity only comprises 60 households.
We had a really good, lively, and informed discussion. The residents present came largely from the part of the village immediately adjacent to the pub. Marchwood is divided by a by-pass, and it seems that the main part of the village, on the other side of the road, largely has acceptable connectivity. It is radically different on the side we were in. We talked about how watching the BBC iPlayer is an unfulfilled dream for most of them. We discussed how what little internet connectivity there is disappears completely once the kids come home from school and rush to try to get online. And we talked about the people trying to run businesses who have to travel to places with better connectivity to use online services and send content to clients.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the chat came when we talked about potential solutions to the village’s problems. People were frustrated at lack of action, both on the part of the major connectivity suppliers, and of the public partners who might be involved in solutions. But, they hadn’t, until this point considered there might be an alternative to sitting back and waiting for their existing supplier to take action. Discussion became more animated as they realised there might be alternatives, and when Chris Conder joined the group via Skype to give her real world accounts of connecting her farm and village, it obviously made a deep impression on the group. Members left talking about the possibility of installing share satellite connections as possible short-term solutions, and working on their own wired connections in the longer term.
I found the event incredibly inspiring because it was about more than the internet. Neighbours were meeting each other for the first time, and, within a short interval, were talking about shared interests and taking common action to address them. This event was about community, a community interest in addressing their common lack of connectivity, and an exploration of how that shared interest could help strengthen community ties. It’s a real counter to those people who say that the internet is isolating and anti-social.
Here’s Graham from Marchwood talking about his impressions of the event:
Can’t Get Online Week is a week-long challenge during UK Get Online Week 2011 (30th October to 6th November) which is visiting some of the country’s most isolated communities to see what can be done to help get them online. The journey will be recorded on Youtube, Audioboo, Facebook and Twitter. It is a partnership with the CLA (Country Land & Business Association) to target their members in remote rural areas.
Thank you to everyone who has helped so far with making Can’t Get Online Week happen. I am especially grateful to the CLA for their sponsorship, and to everyone else who has helped out, especially those who have contributed financially. There is still time to make a contribution using paypal to john[dot]popham[at]ntlworld[dot]com.
The latest draft of the itinerary is below. As I am still some way short of my funding target, I am now asking if people could please help out with support in-kind, in the following ways:
Is there a car hire firm out there that might be prepared to donate a week’s car hire (Sunday 30th October to Saturday 5th November) in return for some positive publicity? Failing that, is there a company / organisation that has access to a favourable car hire rate as part of a corporate deal that I might be able to take advantage of? Many thanks to City Car Club for helping out with a greatly reduced rate car hire. They are lovely people and deserve your support.
If anyone would be prepared to put me up during the week, that would greatly help in keeping the costs down. I need accommodation in the following areas.
Sunday 30th October – somewhere in short driving distance of Colchester
Monday 31st October – somewhere in short driving distance of North Warwickshire
Thursday 3rd November – somewhere in short driving distance of Saltburn, North Yorkshire.
If at all possible I would like to stay in places with fairly decent internet connections, and where people don’t mind me hammering their connection by uploading the day’s content to the web.
Anyone got access to a way of paying for petrol (perhaps a corporate account) that they might help out with?
If you could send food parcels / vouchers, etc. that would be great (NB. I am vegetarian).
I would be exceptionally grateful to anyone that can help out, and I’ll ensure you get due publicity for your support.
Here are some links to some of the publicity and support we’ve received lately: