The Chancellor’s Announcement About Rural Broadband – Eventually You Get Proved Right

Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a further funding programme for rural broadband. This is designed to take faster internet connections deeper into the “difficult to reach” parts of the countryside.

There are two notable things about the proposed strategy here. The first is that it is based on what is called “full-fibre”. That means fibre optic cable right into the premises, not, as has mainly been the case to date, running fibre to street cabinets and then relying on the ancient copper cables to take the signal the rest of the way. This can be for miles in some rural areas, and the signal degrades over copper, whereas it doesn’t over fibre. Some of us have been calling for a “full-fibre” strategy for years, and, at last the Government has caught up with this, but only after wasting millions of pounds on propping up the antiquated copper telephone network.

The second notable element is that the new strategy is based around connecting up public sector buildings, especially schools, to the fibre network, and then connecting up the remainder of the community from there.

In 2011, redoubtable broadband activist Lindsey Annison had a plan identical to this to connect up the community of Warcop in Cumbria. Below are some videos I took on the Fibre Walk she led over the proposed cable-laying route. This plan could not be implemented because we were told that it was not feasible for schools to share the connections with non-educational sites. That policy has now been over-turned, but only 7 years later. How much time and money has been expended in pursuing temporary solutions till now?

It is good to be proved right, but why does it have to take so long?

Reflections on the (first) Digital Flu Clinic

So, yesterday was the Digital Flu clinic at Seascale Health Centre, in West Cumbria. 392 people came through the centre during the day to get their annual flu jabs. 40 of these signed up to access their health records online for the first time, and 20 or so of them came to see me to get advice on their digital lives.

And there is the rub, and it’s why we were doing this really. Getting nearly 400 people in one place on one day is a rare opportunity in such a sparsely populated part of the country. The fact that such a small proportion of them wanted advice on digital issues shows the scale of the challenge. And it was not because they were sorted for that kind of thing. I engaged a lot of people in conversation about use of the internet. The vast majority of them said things like “I don’t do the internet”, or “I am not interested in that kind of thing”. They were mainly older people, and most of them live in areas where both landline and mobile signals are poor. This is a combination of factors which combines to produce a lack of awareness of the benefits of being online. And, in the cases where connectivity is poor, even if they are willing, they probably won’t be able to pursue their interest.

But, we always knew this was not going to be easy. This event is the start of a process. The surgery wants to interact with people online, to help people manage their health through apps and online processes, and to cut down social isolation by connecting people together. I also met with Councillor Keith Hitchen who talked about the frustrations of carers having to travel long distances to meet and attend events. The traveling cuts into the respite time they have, and they often have to miss large parts of events because of the time it takes to get to and from the venue. Online events and other interactions would be so valuable in these instances.

So, there are a number of strands we will be pursuing in the coming weeks, including looking at ways of tackling connectivity issues, working out the most cost-effective ways of ensuring that people can get independent advice on their digital needs, and working with local organisations to upskill them in areas such as video-conferencing and streaming meetings.

I’ll leave the last word to the couple I talked to about their use of FaceTime. “Do you use it to talk to family abroad?” I asked them. “Yes, only last night we used it to see our newly-born 6th grandchild in Toronto” they said. Don’t you dare try to tell me (or them) that new technologies are de-humanising.

What would be in your Internet Box?

Elio Hector Loez

Elio Hector Lopez helps put together El Paquete Semanal, a sort of Internet-in-a-box delivered weekly to Cubans. Google wants now wants to bring Internet access to the island. Credit: Miguel Helft

Reading this story yesterday about how Google is working to improve internet access in Cuba, I was drawn to the description in the latter part of the article about El Paquete Semanal, the “internet in a box” which Cubans have been using for the past dozen years or so.

How it works is that someone compiles a “best of” the internet on a Terabyte disk and then copies of this are distributed by people traveling around the country by bus. This reminded me of what people often say to me when I run Digital Tea Parties. Digital Tea Parties are informal events (based, of course, around tea parties) where I introduce people to the joys of the internet. I often show YouTube videos of local historical interest at such events, and, a number of times, people have asked me if I carry those film shows around with me. I then have to explain that YouTube is a resource that anyone, anywhere can access, as long as they have an internet connection. This is part of people’s initial understanding of the internet, and the fact that it must have something to offer to everyone, whatever their interests.


So, if you lived somewhere like Cuba, where your only access to the internet was via a hard drive brought to you on the bus; what would you want to be in the “box”. Let me know in the comments section below.

Join us for live cricket online on Wednesday #LouthTWicket

Devon Malcolm

Devon Malcolm

It’s been more than 3 years since #Twicket, the world’s first live streamed village cricket match, but this Wednesday (3rd September), I am stepping back into the fray to live stream cricket again. This time I am working with Lincolnshire County Council’s Onlincolnshire broadband project to broadcast the PCA Masters v. the RAF game from Louth Cricket Club, which is one of a number of events that have been enhanced with technology to highlight the potential uses of better broadband.

This time there will be no Brenda and no Vicar’s Son, but there will be a number of big-name former international cricketers, including Graham Thorpe, Devon Malcolm, Steve Harmison and Dominic Cork. And we are gathering a cast of local characters to add to the online fun of the day.

The weather forecast is good, and my old friends at Rural Broadband are coming along to make sure we have a good connection. So, if you are anywhere near Louth on Wednesday, please join us, you might get on camera, or get the chance to do a bit of commentary. If you can’t make it, then please add to the fun on Twitter and other social media. We’re using the hashtag #LouthTWicket. And, of course, you’ll be able to watch the action live online at


My interview on BBC Radio 4 “You and Yours” about Free Wifi for Hospitals

On 29th May I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s “You and Yours” programme talking about the need for Free Wifi in Hospitals. The feature is below.

Join the campaign at

Thanks very much to “You and Yours” for raising the profile of this vital issue.


Using technology to disrupt centralised decision-making

I am starting to write this hoping it will not turn into a rant. I’ve said this before, many times, and I suspect I will say it again, many more times.

Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the world. Decisions are made in London all the time about issues that affect us all. Many of these decisions are taken in small meetings which involve no one with a perspective from beyond the M25. I myself have been at meetings in the capital where I have been the only attendee not based in London but where it has been assumed that everyone present can speak with experience of the whole country.

It need not be like this any more. We have the tools to change this situation. The London-based decision makers who take the top-level decisions are already open to scrutiny. We can watch their discussions on the BBC Parliament Channel.

The internet allows us to take the Parliament Channel principle into all aspects of decision-making. It’s a straightforward task now to live-stream your meeting, involve remote attendees using tools like Skype and Google+ Hangouts, and engender online discussion using Twitter, Facebook or online fora. It’s not happening anywhere near enough. Why not?

One of the factors, that I’ve observed myself when in London, is those serendipitous meetings, where people just happen to bump into each other, exchange views and start working on a collaborative solution. This happens everywhere, but it happens a lot more in London, where there are more people, and where such collaborations can often get direct access to funders and decision-makers very quickly. How we spread those sorts of benefits is a trickier challenge, but, I am sure technology has a role to play.

So, let’s do it. Let’s use new technologies to break down centralism in decision-making.

Some of my passions

Some of the things I am passionate about:

If you connect with me on social media, I’m likely to talk about all of these things at some point, because work and social life tend to leak into each other. I hope you don’t have a problem with that.

What are you passionate about?

Disruption from the bottom up

We hear a lot about the internet causing “disruption”, i.e. radically shaking up and undermining established ways of doing things. I’ve been thinking about some real disruption being led from sources which might seem unlikely.

Now, I’m a great believer in being ambitious in the technological sphere. I think we have to think radically and be prepared to push at boundaries if we are going to achieve real change and demonstrable benefits. And I believe broadband is one of these spheres. In my opinion the economic development of the UK is being held up by a lack of ambition in how we take broadband forward. Yes, the Government, European Union and local authorities are investing in getting “superfast” broadband ever further into the countryside, but what they are investing in is constrained by the “art of the possible”; by which I mean it is being put into delivering more of the same, within the parameters of what certain big players are prepared to deliver, and what the market demand is perceived to be.


Broadband is one of those areas where I believe the Henry Ford doctrine of “don’t invest in faster horses” applies. The market demand for faster broadband speeds is limited by what people believe is possible and what they think they need now. It fails to take into account the pace of technological change, and the fact that more bandwidth hungry uses, applications and appliances are coming into use every day. I fear that the investment which is now being made in today’s broadband technology will have to be done all over again in a few years time when demand once again exceeds the available bandwidth of the solutions currently being installed. That is why I advocate that means should be found, wherever possible, to ensure that broadband installation is future-proofed; and that means installing fibre-to-the-premises, not halfway houses which introduce bottle necks into the system.


All this is vey frustrating. And yet, there are heroic souls out there who have bitten the bullet and are installing their own future-proof connections. Prime among these, in my opinion, are the farmers and villagers of the north Lancashire B4RN project, who are raising money from their own resources and digging hundreds of miles of trenches, to install fibre to the premises connections to properties in some of the north of England’s most remote areas. B4RN is already delivering 1Gbps (1000Mbps) symmetrical connections to its first customers, and those connections are capable of being turned up to even greater speeds should future needs demand.


The irony in this, for me, is that we now have people living in one of the country’s most remote areas who are experiencing the fastest internet speeds available. It will be some time before B4RN has a critical mass of customers connected to the network, but, I ask myself, how disruptive will 1Gbps rural communities be? We will shortly have digital farmers and digital villagers shrinking distances and finding new ways of operating that most of us have never thought about before. And what about the potential for geek vacations to the B&Bs and holiday cottages with the hyperfast connections? This is turning on its head the traditional notions of silicon valleys and technology roundabouts, where we think of the cities as the engines of technological innovation.

Tower Block

And so, the other day, I spotted this story about Hyperoptic offering Gigabit broadband to tower blocks in London. And this made me think. Social landlords are struggling at the moment to get more of their tenants online before the move to online management of benefits payments and the Government’s “Digital by Default” agenda further disadvantages them. What if we used approaches like that of Hyperoptic (allied with a bit of B4RN grit) to create Gigabit social housing tenants. OK, many tenants might be reluctant to go online; but what if they were offered the opportunity to become the fastest tenants in the world? Would they take that opportunity? And would it be truly transformational? I think its an experiment worth trying.

If B4RN can place the remotest villagers at the forefront of the technological revolution, why can’t social landlords do the same with some of their tenants? Lets have true disruption led from the bottom up.

Conference Venues and Connectivity

Image by Paul Clarke

I’ve been prompted to write this post by my experience live streaming Commscamp yesterday in Birmingham. It was an illustration of my frustrations with the inability of many conference venues to offer decent connectivity. I know it is a frustration shared by many others. A lot of venues have simply not caught up with the requirements of the modern world.

Image by Paul Clarke

I do a lot of live video streaming. I do it relatively cheaply, using low cost equipment and free web-based tools. I pride myself in being able to broadcast a video stream from most places. I’ve live broadcasted an event from the top of a windy hill in Lancashire, another from a pub basement in Barnsley, and, of course, there was some cricket match or other (for which I had a lot of technical help from some wonderful people). I use a number of different means of getting the live stream to the world. I find that, in very many cases, the connectivity offered by venues, particularly if it’s via wifi, is inadequate for the purposes of live streaming. But then, live video does require a fair amount of bandwidth, perhaps not as much as you might believe, but a fair amount, nevertheless. So, I very rarely find a venue wifi system that can handle me doing a live stream from it. And it’s even more problematic if if there are going to lots of delegates there using their own internet-connected devices. This is why I usually stream over 3G using my WiBE or mifi.

Image by Paul Clarke

Live streaming is one thing, but it is that point about lots of people using their own tech at events which is the real crux of the matter. These days, I think at even non-technology related conferences and seminars, lots of people turn up at events with their own laptops, tablets and smartphones, which they expect to be able to connect to the internet. A case in point is yesterday’s venue. I won’t name it, because it is one of many that hasn’t woken up to the modern world, but it won’t be difficult to find out which it is. When I arrived there yesterday, I did something I often do on such occasions, I tested the speed of the in-house wifi to see if it would support live streaming. It came in at around 6Mbps download and 0.5Mbps upload. This is about one-tenth of the speed of my home broadband connection. And this was in a venue which was about to welcome 135 delegates to an event where most would have their own connected devices. I then further found out that the 3G connectivity was pretty poor there, and was scratching my head about how to support a live stream when the wonderful Paul Clarke arrived waving his 4G smartphone in my direction. Paul saved my life and I was able to use his device (which offered a 6Mbps symmetrical connection) to live stream for most of the day. And the fact that I had exclusive use of it meant there was no interference.

But, in order to keep the 4G connection free from interference, I connected my laptop and  smartphone to the venue wifi. After a while, the connection kept dropping, and several other people reported the same experience. I suspect this was because the venue was using “domestic” routers which limit the number of devices that can be connected at any one time. If that number is exceeded, they simply start chucking people off who were previously connected.

Image by Paul Clarke

So, conference and event venues need to wake up to the implications of 100s of people turning up equipped with internet-connected devices. Yesterday’s venue was in central Birmingham, not in a rural outpost. I am sure it is perfectly feasible to secure an internet connection there which offers better than 6Mbps down / 0.5Meg up. And, note, it is the upload speed which is important when people are posting content to the outside world. And the wifi needs to be robust, stable, and capable of handling large numbers of devices all connected at the same time.

It’s not rocket science, is it?

All images by Paul Clarke used under CC BY 2.0

Let’s use technology to unlock ingenuity

My friend Abi Manifold reminded me, through a post on Twitter, of Sugata Mitra’s inspirational TED talk about how he had embedded computers in walls in Delhi which children had used to educate themselves.

I think there are so many other ways we can use this principle. It’s why I support the deployment of free wifi wherever it can be utilised. Put it there and people will use it in ingenious ways. People are creative when given the chance. They just need some tools.

Here’s Sugata Mitra’s talk