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Covid lockdown: 'Cut off' village still blighted by slow broadband

media captionSome villagers are taking laptops outside to get a signal in order to apply for jobs

Villagers who felt "cut off" during lockdown due to almost non-existent broadband say nothing has changed as they go through Wales' firebreak.

In April, people in Pandy, Wrexham, said it was abysmal only having broadband speeds of 1Mbps or less, limited mobile phone signal and no 4G.

Alison Bendall said it was "very frustrating" she could not video call her grandchildren.

BT said it was working to connect the "hardest to reach households".

Now, as Wales enters the last week of a national, 17-day lockdown, people in the village say nothing has changed in the past six months for them.

Ms Bendall said: "Some days it can be fine and other days it just doesn't work. It's so frustrating.

"It's so difficult because I've got grandchildren. I try to see them on WhatsApp or FaceTime and it just doesn't work.

"It's so hard when lockdown's here, that you can't even see over the internet."

While Pandy has never had a superfast fibre connection, other areas of the Ceiriog Valley do.

Mrs Bendall said poles carrying fibre in the village became active in the summer - only to deliver fibre to another area of the valley.

image captionAlison Bendall said her grandchildren's faces "freeze" while she tries to talk to them on FaceTime

She said some people lived just yards from active fibre cables, but were unable to connect without paying high costs under schemes like a Community Fibre Partnership (CFP).

Funding schemes are available to help with the cost of CFPs, but Mrs Bendall said most of the 58 properties in the village had been told they do not qualify for the full available funding.

Under another scheme, Universal Service Obligation (USO) she said BT quoted her more than £85,000 for connection.

"Four poles away, we actually have fibre, so I got really excited, but when the quote came in it was £85,000 just to connect our house.

"They've updated that to £8,000, but even 8,000 is just too much."

Thomas Hugh Kershaw, 22, lives with his parents and is looking for a job after completing a masters degree.

In order to search online he travels more than a mile to Glyn Ceiriog where he can find a mobile signal - and uses his phone as an internet hotspot.

"It's a bit of a hassle's the only way I can do it," he said, describing internet speeds at home as "beyond awful".

Thomas said poor internet speeds stopped him returning home from university in England during lockdown as he would not have been able to speak to lecturers online if he was back in Wales.

Aeron Davies lives yards away from a pole which carries fibre, but says he cannot get connected.

"I've got a lovely pole outside the house with everything ready to rock and roll and they just don't want to connect for some reason. I don't know why," he said.

"Why is a little village like Pandy being ignored?"

'Understand the frustration'

On Tuesday, the funding system changed, meaning the majority of Pandy can benefit from the Welsh Government top-up voucher scheme that doubles the funding amounts available - meaning fewer properties need to sign up to cover the cost.

Openreach said the entire contribution of the village could be met if enough residents and businesses claimed the vouchers available to them.

Connie Dixon, partnership director for Openreach in Wales, said: "We would urge residents to engage with Openreach as part of our Community Fibre Partnership Scheme where the cost of building an ultrafast fibre broadband infrastructure to Pandy would be split between Openreach and the community itself.

"If there's enough demand for the service the community's contribution towards the scheme could be covered in full by using the Welsh Government's top-up to the UK government's rural Gigabit Voucher scheme."

BT said: "We understand the frustration of those in hard to reach areas like this and we're fully committed to working with the government to find the best and most cost effective ways to connect the most expensive and hardest to reach households.

"The costs for this area have been reviewed and been brought down to under £10,000 for the whole build, connecting 44 premises.

"We're also be offering in future the option for communities to split the cost of a USO connection build between them."

The Welsh Government said telecommunications was not devolved, but pointed to £200m it had spent on rolling out superfast broadband and other schemes, which had seen total coverage reach 95% of premises.

A Welsh Government spokesman said they have introduced measures to help those communities get connected with schemes such as the £10m Local Broadband Fund.

"The most recent data from the telecommunications industry show more premises in Pandy are now eligible for the Rural Gigabit Voucher scheme if they wish to apply," a spokesman added.

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