Challenges of Rural Telecommunications

For those of you who have never ventured outside major urban areas, the pleasures of country living may yet have escaped you, especially with the easy availability of 8-20Mb broadband in many towns and cities.

Lincolnshire is a very rural county in a neglected corner of the UK, sandwiched between the bracing North Sea winds and the smoke and dirt of the declining industrial areas in the spine of England. In Lincolnshire we grow the potatoes and harvest the seas so that the ex-miners and steel workers can eat fish and chips with the knives and forks that used to made in the factory, that is now a call centre (or retail park).

It is one of the largest counties in the UK, yet it contains almost none of the population so has some interesting physical and economic challenges when it comes to telecommunications. Geographically, it is mostly flat with a couple of small lumps – I live on one, at the stately height of 130 metres above sea level, and Lincoln Cathedral is on the other, about 17 miles away to the South West. It is a bit like the The Netherlands, but the hills are much higher there. Their tallest is 321m, although only 1/3 is actually Dutch, the rest being shared with the Germans and Belgians – though Lincolnshire's hills might beat some of those in the Great Plains of America.

You expect to drive at least 5 miles to buy a carton of fresh milk, along roads that have the third highest death rate in Europe (after Greece and Portugal). These are mostly single carriageway roads, of course, there being few dual carriageways, and no motorways/freeways at all in the whole county. We are physically 150 miles away from London and about 40 years behind virtually, with communications technology genrally being “Miss Marple” to the rest of world's “CSI”.

This sort of geographic isolation and emptiness means that there is a dearth of modern technology here as nobody was able to defend the business case (until recently). When I had a fax line installed, it took three men over a day to string the new cables across the countryside from the access box about 3 miles away in the next village – all for the bargain price of BT's regulated fee of £99 at the time. I do however possess what must be one of the few ISDN video conferencing systems in the county, cows and sheep tend not to use them because the buttons are too small for their hooves and cleats, and the farmers just shout louder at each other after a good “dagging” session.

However, one of the biggest excitements (yes, I have finally got there) is that Broadband finally arrived and we got hooked up to a 1Mbps service so my emails now arrive much faster than before. The kids can also now enjoy online gaming with XBox and PS2, and learn new words from various Beavis' and Buttheads around the world. Of course, this all means very little to the outside world, but the lights of the cyber-culture just came on a bit brighter in this windy out of the way place.

The arrival of broadband has given me the excuse of finally solve one of my domestic technical challenges, that of getting the network throughout the house. In some places the walls are over 27inches thick and made of stone and well nigh impossible to drill so structured cabling is out. Being a stunted H-shape, there are usually quite a few feet of stone by line of sight between any two points in the house which also creates wireless challenges. Voice comms by using wireless DECT phones works OK (with a repeater), but WiFi just doesn't cut it – three networks down and counting.

I was therefore very impressed to discover PLC technology (based on the Homeplug standard) which links the Ethernet network over the power cables (originally 14Mbps, now 85MBbps and beyond) – quite adequate for piping Broadband connectivity. Bearing in mind the typical complexity of any networking solution, this just works with stunning simplicity straight out of the box!

1 thought on “Challenges of Rural Telecommunications”

  1. Since I wrote this, Lincolnshire council have benn pushing hard bakced by EU money to get Advanced Wireless Boardband services into the more rural areas – 2MBps SDSL, yes, SDSL – getting better all the time!

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