Dig for victory

Welsh Border Life columnist Black Sheep rants with his take on rural broadband in Wales and the Borders

by Black Sheep, 2nd March 2021

Is trench warfare our last hope for decent broadband?

Where would we be without the internet? Zoom, Netflix, BBC iPlayer… shephard’s wives.comLet's face it, lockdown would’ve been a nightmare without it.

How do I know this? Because - living within sight of trees and fields and stuff - our broadband is as effective as a few smoke signals.

We receive letters quicker than emails round these parts. I genuinely had a message from a reader pop into my inbox last week that had been sent before Christmas. No word of a lie. That Japanese WWII soldier who finally emerged from hiding and gave himself up in 1974 was probably more up-to-date with the news back then than we are in Llanyllanllan in 2021.

But never fear. Because BT are here. BT Openreach, that is. Although just how open they are and how far they reach is up for debate.

As has been the case for the last few decades now, Openreach are currently looking into how us hardy, oblivious souls (pandemic? What pandemic?) can finally be connected to the rest of the world. And their latest suggestion is... Dig a trench.


Not them dig a trench, I hasten to add. Us. I mean, it’s not like we’ve had any use for our buckets and spades for the best part of year, so why not?

We received a PDF telling us all about it the other day. Although given there was no mention of Covid I can only assume it was emailed some time before March 2020.

Anyway, entitled Community Fibre Partnerships, its opening gambit was ominously headed: Everything you need to know about digging your own network ducts. And to make matters worse, that was accompanied by a smart-arse subhead of Can you dig it?

Well that’s an easy one to answer. No. No we can’t bloody well dig it, thank you very much. That’s your job you hopeless bunch of cretins.

Confusingly, the article goes on to say: “When you sign up for a Community Fibre Partnership with Openreach, you don’t have to do a thing. Just sit back and we’ll take care of it all – from planning and digging to connection and testing.”


Thing is, that’s the theory. Until you realise that getting them to hire a digger for a few days will cost you somewhere in the region of the price of a three-bed semi in Shrewsbury. And if you’re going to spend that amount of money, well, you might as well buy a three-bed semi in Shrewsbury. And watch Netflix there instead.

So this is where the next bit of info is supposed to come in handy: “But if you have the tools and resources, it could be possible to do some of the groundwork for your new fibre infrastructure yourself.”

And yet, even if you were daft enough to go down this route, there’s Openreach’s handy “Things to consider” to consider. Like, who owns the land… will roads need to be closed… and are there any natural barriers, such as a bloody great mountain requiring the services of that lot who built the Channel Tunnel.

Best of all is their top tip: “Keep it straight.” Which I’m really glad they mentioned, because, you know, for a minute there we quite fancied one of those natty little zig-zaggy routes that are all the rage right now.

But here’s the rub. The real rub. You see, if I have to listen to Mrs Sheep banging on about not being able to watch Netflix any more, I may just have to book myself into an abattoir. When they reopen. It’s either that or… I’m going to have to dig it.

And so that’s what I started to look into last week. Until I settled down for Newsnight on Tuesday.

Stay with me on this.

Because there, in her usual get up of military chic, was Emily Maitlis introducing a piece on the recent Mars landing. It started with staggering images of that buggy thing being lowered onto some crater, followed by awe-inspiring panoramic footage of the planet itself… all dust and rocks and not much in the way of life. Again. Which may or may not go down as another £1.9 billion well spent.

What got me, though, was how a total of 23,000 images and more than 30GB of data had been beamed down from a toy car 33.9 million miles away to us here on Earth. In just 11 minutes.

Course, what we really wanted to know was, what was next for Herbie, or whatever that thing’s called. Was it going on a road trip round Mars, in search of a Starbucks along the way?

Over to Emily again for a quick Zoom chat with Professor Sanjeev Gupta, one of NASA’s outsource team responsible for the buggy’s to-do list, and who works just down the road from Newsnight HQ, at Imperial College (doesn’t everyone these days?).

The omens weren’t good from the get go. There, on the big Newsnight video screen, was somebody looking vaguely professor-ish. It could’ve been the Doc from Back To The Future; we couldn’t tell for sure because the picture was about as high definition as a silent movie. And although I could hear a few indecipherable words coming over the airwaves, his mouth wasn’t moving.

Emily quickly moved on to tomorrow’s headlines in the papers while somebody clever did something with a few knobs and cables. Then it was time to boldly go back to the Prof, who by now was even more motionless and making Orson Welles seem positively intelligible.

And then… Zap! The line went completely dead and some bizarre LOOK INTO YOUR WEBCAM instruction appeared on our screens, to be replaced by a befuddled Emily a split second later.

“Sometimes Mars is easier than Earth,” she offered, ever the professional.

Certainly it had been one small step for man and one giant cock up for Newsnight. But the big question is, if that’s what the wifi is like on a flagship BBC news programme, then what hope for the rest of us, whether we dig our own trenches or not?

The answer, of course, is for NASA to stop faffing around looking for signs of nothing on dusty old planets and to invest their billions into satellite broadband.

I’m no mathematician, but if it takes their kit just 11 minutes to download 30GB from Mars, a romcom or two on Netflix for us Earthlings to settle down to shouldn’t be beyond their capabilities.

A mutton for punishment, Black Sheep welcomes all comments. Email to air your points of view. You can also read Black Sheep in Welsh Border Life every month. When it's back. Or follow him on Twitter @onemanandhispen

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