Fed up villagers in Michaelston-y-Fedw install ultrafast broadband

By Gemma Ryall
BBC News

Media caption,
Villagers decided to take matters into their own hands

In a small, leafy village midway between two cities, an internet revolution has been taking place.

Michaelston-y-Fedw might be just 10 miles from Cardiff city centre and a short drive from Newport but it has always been a world away when it comes to its broadband access.

Its low internet speed of 4Mbps meant it was a proper "not spot" where young people could not watch YouTube, the local pub struggled to take card payments and downloading a film was nearly impossible.

So fed up locals decided to take matters into their own hands and install their own ultrafast broadband.

Image caption,
Dave Schofield (second from left) and some of the other volunteers with the fibre optic cables they are laying

The local pub, village hall and church have just been connected and by autumn about 175 homes in the area will have upload and download speeds of 1Gbps - or 1,000 Mbps - some of the fastest internet speeds in the UK.

When you drive along the lanes leading to the village, large banners proudly proclaim: "Fastest Village in Wales."

It's a huge deal for its 300 residents.

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Meg Cope is studying journalism at university but says is unable to upload her work at home

Meg Cope, 21, says her house has the slowest broadband in the village because it's at the end of the current copper line - and it's affecting her studies at Cardiff University.

"The internet is so important for my university work - I read a lot of articles and journals so I have to go into uni to download them and then come home to read them," she said.

"It makes me feel like I'm behind with my degree. Its's so frustrating.

"Just going online for social media, I have to use 3G and I end up using all my data and have to buy more."

Image caption,
Caroline Hill and Ben Langman - with their puppy Alfie - have welcomed the new broadband
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Banners around the village proudly show its new status

Caroline Hill and Ben Langman, who have been running the Cefn Mably Arms for the past 21 months, said the slow speeds had been hurting their business.

"It affected everything. As soon as someone came into the pub and their phone connected with the wi-fi, it would crash our debit card machine," said Ben.

"Trying to pay our 26 staff was difficult as it's all online banking these days. A few years ago you could do your ordering over the phone, now it's all online... It was so hard."

But that's all changed as the pub has just been connected to the new ultrafast Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) broadband.

"Now you can come along and download the whole Star Wars trilogy in three minutes," laughed Ben.

Image caption,
Michaelston-y-Fedw is surrounded by rolling fields and hills

They all have Dave Schofield to thank for dragging the village into the 21st Century.

He and a team of about 30 volunteers - all local villagers - decided that because nobody else was sorting out their problem, they would do it themselves.

He mentioned the idea at a village meeting, not thinking anybody would be enthusiastic, but he said everyone jumped on board.

They set up their own not for profit Community Interest Company and raised £150,000 by asking local people to buy shares in the project.

They then went about applying for every grant they could, including to the Welsh Government and Access Broadband Cymru, which offers vouchers to homes in areas that are not set to benefit from BT's Superfast Cymru project.

Similar schemes have been undertaken in England, but for Wales it was a first.

Farmers and landowners readily gave permission for trenches to be dug to lay the fibre optic cables - that are thinner than a human hair - from a hub to people's homes and businesses.

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Digging started in the winter and volunteers hope to finish by the autumn

And residents swotted up on the technology, pooled their skills and received training on how to lay the infrastructure.

Local contractors use machinery to dig across farmland to people's driveways. It's then up to each home owner to dig trenches to carry the fibres into their own homes, with others stepping in to help those who can't manage the work.

It has become a full time job for many of the volunteers.

"We started digging on 21 February this year when the ground was frozen solid," said Dave, 52, who's lived in the village for eight years.

"A few weeks later we were snowed in for three days and then we had torrential rain.

"So it's not been easy but we were all determined. And it's brought the whole community together."

Image caption,
David Walford has been helping to dig the trenches

David Walford, 21, stepped up to do the groundwork, digging trenches in the many fields that surround Michaelston-y-Fedw.

"I've got a drone and I take loads of videos but I've never been able to upload them. There'd be no hope of doing anything like that," he said.

"For the last three days I've been coming down to the village hall to finally upload all my videos to YouTube. It's amazing - you don't realise how painful it was before."

For many of the villagers, the project has not just been about improving internet access - it's also been about improving community relationships.

Image caption,
Jim and Carina Dunk have loved making new friends as they work on the project

Jim Dunk, 71, has had a home in the village for 41 years but because he was in the Merchant Navy, he travelled the world and used it only as a base.

"This is why the project meant so much to me," he said.

"It's the place I came back to - but apart from the village pub, I didn't know many other people. Now, I've met just about everybody as I'm one of the people who's put the routers into all the houses."

His wife Carina, who does the fibre splicing, added: "In a very short space of time we've got to know a lot of people very well.

"Sometimes we're spending eight hours a day together. Before this, Jim was playing golf four times a week - now he's lucky if he gets there once. But he loves it."

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The local church is also proud of its new internet speed

They still have much work to do. The popular Cefn Mably Farm Park will also be connected as part of the project - but first the team will have to get the wires across a river.

That doesn't daunt them.

"We'll just use a directional drill to do it," added Dave - a phrase he no doubt didn't think he'd be using this time last year.

The people power behind the project has impressed many of the locals.

Image caption,
Saskia Barnett can't wait to try her faster internet speeds at home

"They're all so clever doing it," said Saskia Barnett, 22, who has lived in the village all her life.

"It's such a great idea and will really make a difference for people living here.

"When you're a teenager growing up here it's really hard... My brother and I would have to time when we'd go online - when he was playing on his Xbox I wouldn't be able to watch Netflix on my laptop."

"Our house has just gone over to the new router. It's not up and running yet but it will be so much better. It will be so good."