The Dig Society in action

In a scene worthy of an Ealing comedy, villagers tired of waiting for broadband create their own 40-MILE trench to lay cable.

It’s the kind of community action that the Prime Minister must have been dreaming of when he launched his much-vaunted Big Society.

Fed up with frozen screens and snail-slow web access, the residents of eight neighbouring villages have decided to dig a 40-mile trench and lay their own broadband line.#In a display of indomitable British spirit reminiscent of the classic Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico – where locals run their own services after being abandoned by authorities – hundreds turned up with spades to cheer on the first symbolic cut of the turf.
The villagers – in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland – decided to take matters into their own hands after coming to the conclusion that BT ‘would never get round to’ providing them with an efficient broadband service.

Computer expert Barry Forde, who lives with 500 other residents in Quernmore, or of the villages that will benefit from the move, is the man behind the project to link the houses to a state-of-the-art fibre-optic network.

Mr Forde, who formerly worked at Lancaster University has set up a community-based company called Broadband 4 The Rural North (B4RN).
He plans to raise the £1.8 million needed to pay for the cable and other equipment by selling shares in B4RN – a not-for-profit organisation – to local people. The shares money will then be boosted by a £150 connection fee that villagers will have to pay on top of a £30 per month service charge. The company has already raised £300,000 – more than enough for this summer’s first phase that will see 400 homes connected out of a projected 1,400.

Mr Forde said: ‘People here know the big telecom companies will never get round to providing them with decent internet connectivity. It’s in the spirit of how they do things that they’ve got on and are doing it themselves.
The locals can buy shares from as little as £1 but will have to wait a number of years before B4RN is making a profit and they can recoup their money. Those who buy more than £1,500 worth of shares get a free connection and a year’s free usage.
Under the scheme, a new ‘core’ cable will be connected to a super-fast fibre-optic cable network.
The ‘core’ will run around the villages and join up with the existing main cable at Arkholme. The core’s trench will follow the sides of fields and, when it reaches villages, will zigzag between houses to enable them to be connected.
Locals will have to dig a narrow 2ft-deep trench across their gardens to run smaller cables to link up with the core.
And the more able-bodied will show the true Big Society spirit by volunteering to do the work for those who are less able.
All the installation work inside the homes will be done by locals trained by B4RN and expert contractors will excavate small tunnels under roads and rivers.

Christine Conder, one of B4RN’s committee members, said many farmers were initially sceptical about allowing their land to be crossed by the cable. She said: ‘They wanted money. We explained we couldn’t pay much and virtually all then gave permission’.
The best domestic internet speed offered by BT is 100mps (100 megabits per second) but the locals will enjoy a service that is ten times as fast at 1Gbs (one gigabit per second).

Mother-of-five Elaine Drinkall had dial-up internet on the sheep and dairy farm she runs with her husband John near the village of Abbeystead – but it was so slow she gave up.

It means her daughter Harriet, 14 is unable to do her homework online and Elaine struggles to do her VAT returns and registering of animals via the net.

But before they get the new service, there’s the matter of three miles of trench to be dug between their farm and Abbeystead.
‘We’ve got a stream and a wood to cross, but we’re up for it,’ said Mrs Drinkall, 53. ‘It really will change our lives. It is going to be a bit like leaving the Dark Ages.’