The bane of broadband – inquisitive sheep

Robert Famelton, Nina Remnant and Louise Kirkwood who are looking to improve internet services.
Robert Famelton, Nina Remnant and Louise Kirkwood who are looking to improve internet services.

SHEEP nudging transmitters, a remote rural location and problems with weather.

As those involved with the Fontburn Internet Project will admit, there have been some problems along the way.

But in just three years, the scheme has flourished and now provides businesses and people in Fontburn with vital online access.

And there are even plans to try to develop the project further by improving speeds and extending the service.

Project secretary, Louise Kirkwood, said: “It hasn’t always been straightforward by any means. There have been all kinds of frustrations and difficulties due to the remoteness of our location, weather and so on. But members (of the project) have stayed with it throughout and are pretty unanimous in agreeing that life here without internet access would be very much harder, and getting harder all the time, for their families and businesses.

“It makes an enormous difference to people in a remote rural community such as Fontburn and we would definitely not be without it now.”

The project is an example of what can be achieved in a remote, rural location.

It all started in 2007, when the scheme was set up by members of the local residents’ association – after problems accessing the internet in the area – before the project became operational in 2008.

Over the years the system has evolved – initially using a satellite-based system to provide connections – and now involves leasing two BT business lines at a site just north of Morpeth and relaying the signal via a wireless link to two hubs at Fontburn which then relay on wirelessly to other members of the project.

It means that now, at optimum times when signal strength is good and not too many members are simultaneously on line, the system delivers a download speed of between 1.1mbps and 1.5 mbps – rather less for uploads.

While this is at the slow end of current broadband speeds, it is still significantly faster than using dial-up in the area.

The project has 10 members, including four working farms – which need the internet for business use and communicating with Defra and other agencies – a cafe and farm visitor centre and other small businesses operating from members’ homes.

Membership would be more but the cost of the service – at just under £30 a month – is high. However, it is hoped that in the future, the project can attract more members and if possible, reduced costs and greater choice to users.

The scheme initially received European rural business development funding via One North East which was paid directly to the service providers, Educom, and subsidised the necessary equipment, installation and start-up and maintenance costs.

The first three-year phase of the scheme ended last month but the arrangement with Educom is continuing for the time being at the same membership rate.

Louise added: “Our main aim is to look to the future to grow and improve the project as best we can now that the first phase of funding has finished.”

Members are optimistic about the future of the Fontburn Project and with various national funding streams becoming available, Louise has stressed the need for the county to secure a chunk of this money to aid and develop internet access throughout Northumberland, particularly in the more rural areas.

“Northumberland desperately needs to capture more of this money in order to develop an internet infrastructure, especially in the rural uplands and the north of the county,” she said.

“We are way behind other north eastern counties and parts of the country. Access to internet is vital for business and for social development.”

“Northumberland has a really urgent task to get to grips with, making the case for funding to national bodies such as BDUK, and showing that it can help to facilitate projects where the community, council and local businesses are working together to deliver internet access to the highest possible standard.

“Our priority should be to get the best and the fastest possible connection in order to survive economically and socially and to try to get the rural uplands to the top of the Government agenda in this matter and show what can be done.”