There are 4,000 homes in the UK that don't have internet access at all (known as 'notspots') and 2.5 million who only have 2.5Mbps ('slow-spots'). If you're one of these people, you no longer have to put up with being ignored by your local ISP – you can become your local ISP.
Some villagers, such as those in Lyddington, Rutland, have banded together and raised the capital to lease BT's services and lay their own fibre-optic cables, turning their internet no-go zone into a digitally connected hub that offers the 200 homes in the village download speeds of up to 40Mbps.
Companies such as BT and Virgin usually consider plans to develop the infrastructure of rural areas as economically unviable, so until now villages like Lyddington were effectively cut off from the internet.
Being denied broadband is no joke. More and more council and government services are accessed online – for almost all of us, the internet is a must.
To create their own ISP, which they called Rutland Telecom, Lyddington's residents joined forces with a local ICT company, which was able to resell BT's broadband service. They then paid for and laid their own fibre-optic cable to the village's street cabinet.
Director Mark Melluish said, "For the first time in UK telecommunications history, the telephone lines of customers are completely cut off from the local BT exchange." And they won't be the only ones for long.
Residents of Alston Moor in Cumbria have already dug the trenches needed to lay the cable for their own 100Mbps service.
Of course, there are alternatives that are worth investigating before setting up your own ISP. There's mobile broadband technology, which uses the mobile phone 3G network. However, this is quite costly, and the service is patchy outside built-up areas (www.ofcom.org.uk offers a coverage map).
Another possible option is satellite broadband. Again, this is expensive: start-up costs are typically over £600 per household, with high monthly rental rates (£30 to £100 depending on usage) and low data speeds (typically 2Mbps).
Other solutions involve using wireless technologies, but these require an uninterrupted line of sight from receiver to receiver, so aren't suitable for areas with high vegetation or hilly terrain.
We contacted BT to see what it had to say about the new ISP startups. It said: "This is a positive development as, to date, BT has been alone in investing in rural areas."
We also asked BT what it was doing to address the problems of rural areas lacking broadband access. The company replied: "BT is investing £1.5billion to deliver fibre broadband to at least 40 per cent of the UK (10 million homes) by summer 2012. We are also rolling out advanced copper broadband – offering speeds of up to 20Mbps – to 75 per cent of homes by spring 2011." Any guesses as to where that 75 per cent isn't?
Want to follow in the footsteps of Cybermoor and Rutland Telecom? Here's our handy guide
1. Check if it's the right approach for your area
Before you start digging up the road to lay your fibre-optic cable, it's important to see whether setting up your own ISP is a sensible idea in your region.
It's definitely worth exploring your options with the CBN (Community Broadband Network) or with companies such as Cybermoor and Rutland Telecom themselves, who can help you carry out all of the necessary feasibility studies.
Then you can start work on a business plan so that you can demonstrate how your company is going to deliver its service to its customers and profits to its investors.
2. Organise the funding
Setting yourself up as an ISP doesn't come cheap. We're talking tens of thousands of pounds to buy or lease the technology needed and lay the fibre-optic cable.
There may be some grants available for your region, but private investment seems to be the normal method of funding. This means finding 10 to 20 like-minded friends who don't mind investing a couple of grand each.
If your business plan is sound, then you should be able to offer them a reasonable return over the longer term, should the project be successful.
3. Get the lawyers in
There's a lot of red tape involved in setting up a company. Apart from the usual form-filling at Companies House, you'll need to sort out the contracts for planning permission for your infrastructure, the returns for the investors, the contracts with BT Openreach for using or taking over their phone lines and services, as well as the legal paperwork for the agreements on subscriptions and billing for your customers.
4. Buy/rent the technology
Investing in industrial technology is a costly business, especially if you're planning to future-proof your service. You'll need the latest fibre-to-the-home Ethernet switching technologies to replace your (likely) antiquated BT street cabinet, as well as the networking technologies required to make it all work.
BT told us that it's happy to help companies set up their own broadband services: "In the case of Rutland Telecom, it is buying our Ethernet products such as Backhaul Extension Service (BES) and Sub Loop Unbundling (SLU)."
5. Trench warfare
Next, you need to lay your brand new fibre-optic cable and replace the innards of your village's BT street cabinet.
Being granted permission to dig up public highways isn't easy, so you'll need to plan for this part of the process a long way in advance. Then it's just a case of getting the workmen in – the whole job only took six hours to complete in Lyddington.
6. Customer service
Now all you need to do is start billing your customers… Oh, and provide some customer support should anything go wrong (such as someone accidentally driving into your cabinet).
Also, don't forget that now the Digital Economy Act is law, you'll be responsible for what your customers download using your servers – so policing their behaviour may be another cost that you need to factor in.
First published in PC Plus Issue 296
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