DIY broadband in the Highlands


Sheep farmer Iain Wilson - Britain's most remote broadband user?

Live in a remote part of Britain and want superfast broadband? Well you could wait until BT, Virgin or some government-funded scheme hooks you up - or you could just do it yourself.

That's what a project called Tegola has done, beaming broadband from a college on the Isle of Skye to a number of remote communities which would otherwise be left without a decent internet connection.

I visited one of them - Arnisdale - in a journey around Broadband Britain four years ago. Now I've been back, and gone further in search of the UK's most remote broadband customer.

Accompanied by Peter Buneman, the Edinburgh computer scientist who got the Tegola project going, I cross the loch to the Knoydart peninsula.

There we find Iain Wilson who farms sheep over 3,000 acres of extraordinarily beautiful but rugged countryside, with no roads and no mains power. His farmhouse relies on his own home-made hydroelectric unit for power, and his sheep go to market by boat.

It is difficult to imagine anywhere on the mainland with less access to basic amenities - but then Mr Wilson shows me his broadband. It is faster than many in the city, and good enough for a video chat with his son in Australia.

A small receiver on the hill behind the house picks up the wireless broadband signal from Skye, and as he is one of the first in the chain, he gets some of the best speeds.

Peter Buneman Computer scientist Peter Buneman is bringing broadband to the Scottish highlands

But it all involves pitching in, building the mast and mending it - with instructions from Peter Buneman - when something goes wrong.

This broadband connection and a few hundred others across the Tegola network - which now includes the island of Eigg - seems to be living evidence that small is beautiful.

Peter Buneman told me he'd once had a conversation with a major broadband company about Mr Wilson's mast on Knoydart.

The firm had laughed at the idea they would ever put a mast somewhere so isolated - and explained that if something went wrong with it they would have to fly an engineer over in a a helicopter at a cost of £3,000.

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If you want fast broadband and you live in the country you may have to get your hands dirty and do it yourself”

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The Tegola project has not been expensive - it started with an academic research grant. A local fish farm has chipped in with some help, and the users now pay a voluntary £10 a month subscription.

On Skye today community broadband activists gather for a conference to learn from successful projects like this. But Peter Buneman, who has done some much to bring broadband to Arnisdale, Knoydart and beyond, isn't satisfied that the job is done.

He says the key is fibre - getting a superfast connection to a hub like the Gaelic College and then spreading it wirelessly to places which will otherwise miss out.

He foresees a national network of open-access fast fibre hubs at schools, hospitals and community centres. This was the idea backed in a House of Lords report on superfast broadband earlier this year.

Another vocal supporter for that approach is Chris Conder, a campaigner from Lancashire who is in Skye for today's conference.

She arrives at the Gaelic College to join me in a live broadcast this morning, complete with the fibre, ducts and pipes which the B4RN community broadband project uses to hook up local farms to a superfast network.

From Skye to Knoydart to Lancashire one message comes through loud and clear: if you want fast broadband and you live in the country you may have to get your hands dirty and do it yourself.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    If they vote for independence, do we get our receivers and relays back to use on some of our remote communities here in England - who don't benefit from such generous government subsidies?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @ 15. Environment Watch - Try SR Ware Iron. An identical looking browser to Chrome, but with none of the Google privacy issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Since it is a "Technology" article might it have been an idea to say what speed the remote sites actually get and what method is being used to distribute the signal. The rather vague words "Broadband" and "Bounced" don't really cut it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Watched your video showing the passage in a rubber hulled boat. Suggest you and the have some instruction with respect to the use of life preservers, they should be zipped up and the waist fastener clipped together. In fact I would recommend the use of proper approved life jackets at all times. It is not long since the tragic loss of a farther and two children not far from where you where.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    12. ol9999.... but the rubbish idea that all need 100Mb to be competitive just does not make sense.

    Precisely! There is a big difference between *want* and *need*.

    Businesses on Scottish Islands or in the Yorkshire Dales do not have the same needs as a City Bank or an International Airline, and it is almost certain that an average domestic customer will not have those needs either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    There are universities working on the specs for 5g, for use 2020 onwards. The lag to rural environments will always mean they are behind the best speeds.
    What is needed is a clear definition of acceptable lag so that you are not falling excessivley behind, limiting ability to trade in the modern world.
    There would then be a clear standard for govt and industry to work too.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    We are in a wireless "notspot" - just 8 miles from Gatwick airport in Sussex! We have no mobile signals and many people have a sub-512K connection - less than the official "broadband" speed. Nobody is interested in providing a service as there are fewer than 1000 (c.990) homes on out telephone exchange. Amazing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    This should not be happening in UK. Our country must have the World-Class Internet and Wifi the best in the world. We are the Great Britain.
    Anyway, kudos and appreciate for them with the DIY.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    If you live in a field then you can get fresh air . a benefit .. Broadband Internet is not some God given right...
    However I am generally supportive of the idea that 'urban systems' should subsidize the sticks.. but the rubbish idea that all need 100Mb to be competitive just does not make sense

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Rural Broadband was pioneered in South Africa some years ago making use of cheap WiFi routers, Open-source software and home-built "cantennas" (little more than tin cans) to link nodes in the community. See I'm surprised it's not mentioned in Tegola's website

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I live in a rural area just outside London have used to have .3Mb/s broadband from BT. A local company has used SLU to give me 20Mb/s on the copper wires. That's more than 60x faster! It did require around £40K of tax payers money to put in a complex wireless and firbre infrastruction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I'm curious to know what speeds they are getting there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Cool. They need a cable laying though - as Peter says. Maybe the government can make the major ISP/Telecoms companies foot the bill to lay the landlines and the communities can do the rest.

    Hi out there. So how's the weather?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    5 James StGeorge

    What about commercial players who only operate locally? If you tax providers for the areas they don't cover, then the only providers left in the market will be those with a UK-wide network, i.e. BT.

    If we regard universal broadband as a "public good" then we must be prepared either to subsidise uneconomic areas or to enforce a service level as we do with letter post.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Clearly such a tax would be on the commercial players, not community schemes actually working in the desired direction. It may require some arcane calculations perhaps by market share and size so as to ensure cherry pickers of the easy bits pay most.

    Universal land line broadband should be 'enforced'. It is the basic network of the future like rail and roads were in the past.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    3 JamesStGeorge

    There could be some mileage in that with regard to mobile broadband, where the licence-holders all operate on a UK-wide basis. It would hardly be fair for landline and "pseudo-landline" operations, since it would penalize smaller, more localised schemes like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Perhaps we need to tax providers on the number of areas not able to get fibre high speed access. Rather like we tax landfill to make councils recycle. Forcing the economics on its head, so they lose profit by not providing it universally. This permitting of cherry picking of the easy profitable bits as they did to the post office is not wise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I have listened in hope to the Governments announcements on rural broadband then watched with disappointment as money flows to BT whose solution is to provide what I call "barely adequate broadband" to a few whilst bypassing those like me who only live (and work) a mile from my village centre. Thankfully I live in the B4RN area and will shortly be connected to a world class service.


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