Sir George launches Broadband in Kingsclere
23 Jan 2004
Sir George with Karl Crossman, Managing Director of FDM Broadband
Sir George with Karl Crossman, Managing Director of FDM Broadband
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Karl Crossman, Peter Woodman, GY and Ray Mather
Karl Crossman, Peter Woodman, GY and Ray Mather
Click for a full size picture
Homes and businesses in Kingsclere have high-speed Internet access using a novel wireless technology from FDM Broadband after a successful community broadband campaign that Sir George hailed as a model for other rural villages in the south of England.

FDM Broadband, an Internet service provider specialising in bringing wireless broadband to rural areas, launched its service in the Hampshire village of Kingsclere after the Parish Council secured a £15,000 grant from the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) to help subsidise the installation. Ray Mather, Broadband Project manager from SEEDA was at the ceremony.

Villagers had initially hoped to petition BT to upgrade the local telephone exchange for ADSL, but decided to concentrate on FDM Broadband’s wireless alternative after it became clear that they would have trouble finding the 500 subscribers that BT required before upgrading the local telephone exchange.

“Kingsclere’s population is just 3,500, so BT’s trigger level was unrealistically high,” said Steve Allam, a local businessman who led the Kingsclere Broadband Campaign. “Rural businesses are falling behind their urban competitors in information technology, and we can’t afford to wait a couple of years to get broadband. We had to act fast, and FDM told us they could begin installation if just 50 people registered their interest.”

“Wireless broadband is a bit more expensive to install than ADSL, but with the help of the SEEDA grant, we have been able to subsidise the infrastucture costs so that individual subscribers’ installation costs are competitive with what people in urban areas are paying for cable or ADSL broadband,” explained Parish Councillor Peter Woodman, one of the driving forces behind the new initiative.

“With more than 100 registered prospective subscribers, Kingsclere is well ahead of the national rate of ADSL takeup, which currently stands at around six percent of households,” said Peter Woodman. “Demand in rural areas is clearly no lower than it is in the cities; it’s just less densely concentrated, which makes providing the infrastructure less attractive to the service providers. But why should rural businesses and businesses be left behind?”

“The big fixed-line providers have been reluctant to expand their infrastructure into many rural areas and have been very ambivalent in their dealings with rural communities like this one,” said FDM Broadband managing director Karl Crossman. “If we want to avoid a major digital divide emerging in this country, wireless broadband is going to be essential to bringing broadband to the ten to 20 percent of the population who live in remote rural areas where other infrastructure is unavailable.”

In theory, broadband can be delivered via cable television or specially-adapted telephone lines known as ADSL, but these services are not widely available in rural areas. The Government has urged rural villages to adopt a “DIY approach” to bringing broadband to their communities.

The Rt Hon Sir George Young MP, who has championed rural broadband provision in Parliament, is enthusiastic about the first community broadband project in his constituency: "It's an excellent example of what can be achieved when local broadband campaigns work in partnership with local government, the regional development agencies and innovative companies in the private sector," said Sir George before officially activating the Kingsclere network. I congratulate all those in Kingsclere who have put this project togethe; it is an excellent example to other villages who have found that that their exchange is unlikely to be enabled by BT or who would prefer wireless to the other available broadband technologies."

Kingsclere worked with Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council and Wired Wessex to help expedite the SEEDA grant.

“Wireless communities are an excellent solution in rural areas where it is difficult for individual businesses to access broadband via a landline,” said SEEDA’s Broadband Manager, Steve Coppins. “Such communities are becoming commonplace as separate pockets of demand club together throughout some of the more remote areas of the South East. SEEDA, with the help and support of local authorities, and other partners in the region, will continue working towards its objective of making broadband available for all businesses, regardless of size and location.”

Formally opening the scheme, Sir George said:

"I am of course absolutely delighted to be able to launch the Kingsclere community Internet service. Peter Woodman has worked long and hard, along with other local people, to drive up interest in broadband locally, to pursue and encourage registrations under the BT scheme, to overcome disappointment when the high threshold for ADSL was announced, and very quickly assess the alternatives and gain support for this network to be put in place relatively quickly - I believe the first such network in my North West Hampshire constituency, if not in the whole of Hampshire.

My congratulations to everyone involved, including FDM, Basingstoke and Deane Council, SEEDA and the Wired Wessex programme. I'm particularly glad that the technologies, the service and the technical skills are being provided by a local company, and I look forward to hearing of other such successes for FDM in the many places round the constituency where people and companies remain out of reach of broadband.

I don't think anyone should underestimate the hard work, energy, determination and skills that have to be deployed to investigate, understand and push through this kind of initiative in a village community - even in a relatively large village like Kingsclere.

In campaigning locally and nationally on broadband issues over the last two years, I've had three main concerns as a Member of Parliament. First, the way that rural communities and their representative have had to generate so much effort and energy in order to bring in a service that in towns and cities just arrives. Second, the fact that our smallest and often our most fragile communities are expected to take on not only the effort but also the risks of putting together new kinds of 'community enterprises' in order to achieve this. And there are risks and uncertainties. The market is always likely to change - since I started my campaign BT has moved the goal posts for ADSL not once or twice but at least half a dozen times. And the technology is changing. Just the other day we saw the announcement that broadband at better performance levels than ADSL will be delivered over the electricity power lines - the first production service in England is now starting up just down the road in Winchester. How can people in small hamlets - much smaller than Kingsclere - be expected to even understand what the technologies and the markets are doing, and decide whether, how and when to invest time, energy and resources in this kind of project? My third concern is about future needs and the fact that as a nation we appear to have no long term strategy for broadband. I've been experimenting with video conferencing with the aim of making it easier for constituents to 'meet' me during the week without having to travel to Westminster or wait until I am back in the constituency at the weekend. But I've found that standard consumer broadband isn't really fast enough to make video meetings an attractive proposition. As we get used to what we can do at 256k, or 512k or a megabit, we will soon want more. Some of the most exciting applications for homes and for small firms need at least two megabits, preferably higher. I don't want the Government resting on its laurels as our local efforts deliver basic broadband into the countryside and the villages -if we are to have confidence in our local initiatives we need clearer and more strategic messages from Ministers."

It is hoped to extend the scheme to nearby villages such as Sydmonton, Ecchinswell, Hannington, Ashford Hill and Headley. The signal is ditrcibuted round Kingsclere from an aerial on the church tower - see background of picture.
 
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