Communicate Magazine – On the Moors

With rich, uncultivated topography, the moorlands are gems of the vast British terrain. Now, with more digital connectivity, the national parks no longer plough the lonely furrow of isolation. Hassan Butt finds out why…

Challenge: Mossy hills gleam through the low fog of moorland peninsulas; landscapes draped in endless mires, turbulent rivers and herds of lethargic sheep. The granite uplands tell stories of idle solitude and expansive retreats, far from the marauding disruptions of the UK’s unending technological metropoles.

Yet the vast southwestern stretches of the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks have now, through public tender, opened their doors to superfast broadband, connecting 5,800 homes, farms, and businesses to high-speed, wireless internet.

For UK-based internet service provider, Airband, undertaking this project meant having a firm understanding of the required technology. Redmond Peel, MD of Airband, says, “In most other countries in the world, radio broadband is a big part of the internet setup. The UK is a slight exception as BT has such a dominance in the marketplace, alternative technologies and providers haven’t flourished.”

“We’ve been providing a service in most rural areas for businesses and county councils over the years. When services are rural and the infrastructure isn’t there, radio is a great option.”

With the help of local council initiatives, the Connecting Dartmoor and Exmoor (CDE) programme was unveiled to mark the ongoing development and integration of both Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks. Councillor David Hall, Somerset County Council’s cabinet member for business, says, “The Connecting Dartmoor and Exmoor programme builds on the success of the first phase of the CDS (Connecting Devon and Somerset) programme and is already making significant impact with some 2049 premises already able to connect to the wireless network and many more will be able to connect before Christmas. This will bring long term economic benefits to the moors that will be felt for many generations to come.”

Yet with Dartmoor covering 368 square miles to Exmoor’s 267, the challenge of implementing this technology, while treading carefully among the environmental, communal and historic concerns, was something all parties had to take into consideration.

Strategy: Devising a method to begin the process of implementation, the environment remained a huge drawback for Airband. Characterised by dense geological formations and diverse and challenging terrains, the national parks remain protected from most new forms of cultivation. In this respect, Airband’s strategy needed a creative and pragmatic approach to the vast distribution plans.

Peel says, “We had to be sure that whatever we were going to deliver had to have a low environmental impact. To do that we engaged the local communities right across both moors. We had meetings with each community to put forward proposals on where we were going to put structures, and what type of structures we would use.”

“It was decided in the end to use large telegraph poles because they were still in abundance in the parks anyway. A lot of the current phone infrastructure comes via telegraph poles, so it was found that radio transmitters that were once telegraph poles wouldn’t have an environmental impact.”

Airband’s proposal sought to deliver approximately 100 transmitter sites across both Dartmoor and Exmoor, these sites would deliver the maximum amount of coverage within the set £4.6m budget with speeds of up to 30 Mbps.

Communications in the region remain the key focus, Peel adds, “As we’ve been underway, the first six months’ take-up rates have been very similar to BT’s take-up rates. These areas are crying out for this kind of service, probably more so than other areas. They are connected to a lot of government and European bodies, there are a lot of people working from home and running businesses, and the internet remains a need.”

Result: With the programme well underway, CDE has resulted in connectivity rates that have exceeded expectations as well as meeting the requirements of the wider communities present within both regions. As the second phase of a wider connectivity initiative, the programme has been one of the largest projects in the region to date. It remains under budget, but there are hopes to extend connectivity to further regions in the southwest and continuing to produce results that sow the seeds of change within the region.

Mel Stride, MP for Central Devon, says, “It’s vital that rural areas have the same access to faster broadband as their urban counterparts and I am delighted for my constituents in the Dartmoor National Park area that will receive both social and economic benefits. It will make the region an even more attractive place to visit, work and set up new enterprises.”

Moving forward, with the indication of competitive usage consumption across the vast region, the future for communications across both national parks will be left to the growing community to shape. The implementation of the CDE comes at a time when technological advancements hold high regard in government, with the chancellor of the exchequer’s recent statement making considerable concessions for 5G plans and research and development resources, the region may also find itself subject to further rollout of technology that was previously only available in the technology utopias of the UK’s big cities.

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It's fantastic to have proper high speed internet at last! John and the rest of the install team were great, please pass along my thanks.

- Andrew Green, Powys