While life in Devon has many attractions, fast and reliable internet is not one of them. Some of the county enjoys superfast connections in the same way as other parts of the UK. But in remote spots, including picturesque towns and villages, broadband tends to quickly hit the buffers
Ten years ago, Devon County Council joined forces with neighbouring authorities to tackle the problem and bring more homes and businesses up to speed. Together with Somerset County Council and the unitary councils of North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset, it set up Connecting Devon and Somerset – the largest of 48 public bodies helping areas with slow broadband around the UK.
“Broadband was poor, but so was mobile coverage,” recalls Keri Denton, Devon’s head of economy, enterprise and skills. Faster broadband is vital for business but also helps households who use the internet socially or may need to access GP or council services.
The role of bodies such as CDS is to work with internet providers and overcome connectivity problems. “Rural parts of Devon are very reliant on public subsidy to bring them up to par,” says Denton, who has been part of the Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) team since it was set up in 2012/13.
Public money can only be used to subsidise connections if properties are not served by the market and do not receive an internet speed of at least 30 mbps (megabits per second).
Since 2013, about 150,000 homes and businesses in Devon have gained access to superfast broadband as a direct result of contracts awarded by CDS. In Somerset (including the two unitary authorities), the total stands at about 165,000.
“The industry has long said that it’s not going out to areas where it’s too expensive,” says Matt Barrow, stakeholder engagement officer at Devon and another member of the CDS team. Across the two counties, there are almost 1.2 million premises, of which about five per cent still struggle with slow broadband.
After initially working with BT and Openreach, CDS offers contracts to lesser-known alternative networks that are keen to accept the challenge of connecting rural areas, providing they do not bear the full costs.
Across the UK, says Barrow, the ‘alt-network’ is growing rapidly. In the case of Devon, CDS works with a company called Airband to take internet to villages such as Clovelly, on the north Devon coast.
An uphill task
Few places present as great a civil engineering challenge as Clovelly. Perched on a cliff-top with narrow, cobbled streets, the privately-owned village is home to just 300 residents but each year welcomes thousands of tourists, who delight in its stunning scenery and historic feel.
To provide Clovelly with superfast broadband, Airband had to not only comply with restrictions governing the village’s listed buildings but remove and put back in the region of 12,000 street cobbles. Mechanical buckets made about 500 trips up and down a 1.5km hill to remove soil so that fibre optic cables could be laid.
The arrival of superfast broadband should benefit local businesses, including the village’s tourist information centre where, until now, visitors have struggled to make contactless payments.
Rufus Gilbert, Devon’s cabinet member for economic recovery and skills, regards Clovelly as exactly the type of hard-to-reach destination that CDS was set up to support. “We’re bringing rural communities into the same situation as urban and metropolitan areas,” he says. “It allows small businesses to operate in rural areas, particularly in the tourism and hospitality sectors.”
Once ruled by William the Conqueror, Clovelly has, more recently, been owned by the Rous family. John Rous who inherited the village from his mother in 1983, says an increasing numbers of professionals, including barristers and software engineers, started working from home during the pandemic. “We understand that connectivity is key to the way we now live,” he says.
Along with tourism, Clovelly is best known for its fishing industry. In other parts of Devon, tourism operates alongside agriculture. Dodgy internet can mean farmers getting up in the early hours of the morning, when internet is more reliable, to check the web pages of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “The agricultural community cannot survive without the internet,” says Gilbert.
Last year, Airband started connecting Hartland Quay, another remote village on the North Devon coast. CDS programmes are also bringing faster internet to mid-size towns such as Tiverton.
However, at the start of 2023, Airband warned plans to roll-out full fibre broadband in parts of Devon, including Exeter, would take longer than planned due to recruitment and retention problems caused by “national and international pressures”.
Connecting across borders
The creation of the Connecting Devon and Somerset created economies of scale for the four councils involved and was particularly helpful when, in the case of Exmoor National Park, work took place across county borders.
Since 2012/13, CDS has received £56.5m from Building Digital UK (an executive agency of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) towards the cost of connecting remote areas.
It is not possible to say how much BDUK money goes to each local authority, partly because of cases such as Exmoor. The precise cost of each contract also remains secret for commercial reasons, as it includes costs borne by internet firms.
In addition to money received from Building Digital UK, councils and local enterprise partnerships also chip in. For time being, CDS receives residue funding from the EU. For each project, money is paid when a contractor reaches agreed milestones.
During the past ten years, the four local authorities that comprise CDS have paid a total of £25.2m towards internet improvements. LEPs contributed £9.1m, with the EU paying £9.5m
Slow internet is not a problem throughout Devon. Three-quarters of Exeter already receives full-fibre broadband, compared with 46% of properties in north Devon. So why are internet speeds slower in more remote areas?
As in other parts of the UK, many of Devon’s towns and villages receive internet through a mix of fibre cable, from the exchange to a roadside box or cabinet, and copper wiring, from the box to each property.
Not everywhere has enough boxes, and they are filling up fast. Where boxes are a long way from individual properties, internet speeds slow considerably. In contrast, where remote areas are connected via the CDS programme, full fibre broadband is sent directly to each home or business.
Credit: Devon County Council/Airband
This means areas that previously struggled with slow internet have overtaken large swathes of Devon and may enjoy speeds of up to 1,000 mbps, or gigabit broadband. “It removes copper from the equation entirely,” says Matt Barrow.
By the end of this decade, all of the UK should receive internet speeds of 1,000 mbps under Project Gigabit, although a national target of the whole of the country receiving gigabit by 2025, set by the government four years ago, will be missed.
At present, according to Ofgem figures, about 70% of the country receives gigabit broadband. Latest estimates suggest coverage of 85% should be achieved in 2025.
Project Gigabit is being overseen by Building Digital UK, which has begun awarding local or regional contracts. Meanwhile, the future of bodies such as Connecting Devon and Somerset looks uncertain.
Very hard-to-reach areas may need to be connected through satellite or wireless internet though the jury is still out on their feasibility. There is a possibility councils such as Devon could be left making sure their highways authorities co-operate with contractors brought in from outside, but Keri Denton hopes not.
Denton believes the government has missed a trick by not making it clear it will draw on local experience and knowledge built up during the past decade. “We’re happy that the government is taking on the contracts and much of the investment,” she says. “There could have been a broader and more collaborative approach.”
The hope is that none of Devon, or parts of other rural counties, remain in the slow lane for too long. “Internet is bringing life to villages where there was just farming and bed and breakfast,” says Rufus Gilbert.