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Drone helps lift rural Welsh valley village to ultrafast speeds

A small village in the heart of rural Wales has become the first community in the world to be connected up to ultrafast fibre broadband thanks to an a
A small village in the heart of rural Wales has become the first community in the world to be connected up to ultrafast fibre broadband thanks to an aerial drone

Homes and businesses in the village of Pontfadog, near Llangollen, can now enjoy some of the fastest broadband speeds in Britain after an inventive team of engineers from Openreach used a drone to land cabling on an isolated group of homes under the Superfast Cymru partnership. Until recently, the properties in Pontfadog were one of the few remaining communities across Wales which are yet to gain access to high-speed fibre broadband, either via private enterprise investment, or as part of the jointly funded Superfast Cymru programme.

Set deep in the Ceiriog Valley, a team of engineers were faced with routing fibre cables over steep valley slopes, through a thick forest area and across a small river just to provide fibre broadband to twenty homes dubbed by other villagers as the ‘dark side’ because of their detachment. The challenging rural terrain meant traditional engineering methods like digging trenches and erecting roadside cabinets had to be ruled out and - given its location in the valley - providing a wireless connection using satellite or radio wasn’t an option either. It looked at one stage like the residents might miss out altogether until Openreach engineers came up with innovative airborne solution.

Openreach’s Chief Engineer Andy Whale, who led the team, explained: “It’s a bit different to connecting an apartment block in London, that’s for sure. We managed to connect up virtually the whole village in the valley floor, but getting to this group of 20 houses up one side of the valley was a bit trickier. There’s a particularly steep drop-off from these houses back down the valley, and it’s covered in dense trees and scrubland. We also had the river running along the bottom to contend with, so dragging a cable and digging it in wasn’t really an option. If we tried running the cable through woods it was also very likely we’d get it caught up in branches and other natural obstructions, so we figured the best option was to fly it in over the top of the tree canopy and then lift it up to make sure it was clear of the tree line.”

The portable drone used by the team was too small to lift the fibre cable itself, so they hooked it up to a length of high strength fishing line which was then flown around 100 meters and dropped across the top of the trees. That line was attached to a draw-rope – itself attached to a fibre cable – which could then be pulled along the unobstructed route laid by the drone. After connections were made at each end, all twenty premises were linked up with cutting-edge Fibre-to-the-Premises technology (FTTP) running all the way back to the exchange in nearby Oswestry. The technology is capable of delivering up to one gigabit per second (1Gbps) download speeds – which is enough bandwidth to stream 200 HD Netflix movies simultaneously.

Andy added: “Had we tried to lay the cable using standard methods, even if it were possible, this process would have taken days, but in the event it took us less than an hour. We’re constantly trialling new techniques and technologies to help us take fibre broadband further and faster, and importantly to drive delivery costs down. All this means we can now deliver high-speed broadband in situations where traditionally it’s been impossible for any business or partnership to justify the work.”

Villager Chris Devismes, who lives in one of the twenty homes, is one of the first to get connected up to the new high-speed network. He said: “I’m an aspiring writer, I work from home and publish my work online - so I do send full novels over the web to my editor or to readers. Before I would go away and cook tea whilst a file upload went through, but now it literally takes a matter of seconds. Retired teacher Chris added: “I live here with my two teenage sons and they’re often online – watching films, streaming music or skyping their friends. When all three of us were online at the same time it could often be a struggle and things would start to buffer and freeze. While testing the new fibre connection I managed to open and run six YouTube videos simultaneously! It has made a world of difference to us and I think it’s going to make a huge difference to the lives of everyone living here in Pontfadog.”

Ed Hunt, Regional Director for Openreach, added: “Pontfadog is a great example of how our engineers never give up. They look at every possible engineering solution to deliver fibre broadband in isolated rural areas, and when the more traditional methods didn’t work, they came up with the rather simple yet ingenious idea of using the drone. We’re not aware of this technique being used anywhere in the world to deliver fixed line broadband in such a situation and we’ll be looking to see if it can be replicated for other communities that are in a similar position. Superast Cymru has been a huge success as a public private partnership, and this is just one small example of the challenges our engineers have faced in delivering superfast broadband across Wales.”

Leader of the House with responsibility for Digital in the Welsh Government Julie James said: “Superfast Cymru is all about bringing faster broadband to areas which would otherwise not receive it. Pontfadog is an excellent example of a rural community which would not have had superfast broadband without the intervention of this project. It’s often challenging and difficult work but it is making a very real difference to the digital landscape of Wales, with more than 650,000 premises with access across the country solely as a result of Superfast Cymru.”

If continuing trials prove successful, Openreach is looking at plans to equip and train selected engineers to pilot drones in engineering teams across the UK.