A team of Northumberland engineers are traversing rivers, burrowing under ancient monuments and bypassing rare, protected wildlife to build a high-speed fibre broadband network across the county. They’ve even used fishing rods to land a faster connection in some of Northumberland’s most remote homes and businesses. The engineers from Openreach - the local network business, which is part of BT Group - are using cutting-edge machinery to upgrade the broadband network, including a high-tech ‘mole plough’ device, which can dig, lay fibre ducting and cables, and then cover it up all in one go. But they’ve also resorted to less orthodox solutions, such as using a fishing rod to get a cable across the River Till.
The roll-out of fibre broadband across Northumberland continues at pace with more than 90 per cent of the county now able to access the new technology. Six years ago, Morpeth, Cramlington, Bedlington and Ponteland were the first telephone exchanges in Northumberland to be upgraded to superfast broadband. Since then, 73 exchanges in the county have been upgraded, hundreds of new fibre cabinets have been built and tens of thousands of kilometres of fibre optic cable has been laid. Nearly 150,000 residents and businesses can now access and benefit from faster broadband speeds, with around four in ten choosing to do so. This massive feat of civil engineering has been carried out by a 20-strong team of planners and engineers, responsible for getting the technology in the ground, across rivers, around ancient monuments, over private land and even through the air.
Mike Reynolds, Openreach spokesperson for the North East, said: “Getting fibre broadband to homes and businesses in sparsely-populated, rural areas is not easy. We know how the technology works and we know how to get it from A to B but that doesn’t factor in rivers with no convenient bridges, little or no existing infrastructure, ancient monuments, private land or wildlife. Planning and surveying is a huge part of our work but there are still some things you simply can’t plan for. When we were building the network out to Kirkwhelpington we’d only just solved the problem of rats nesting in the our underground chambers, when we came across a pond full of great crested newts on land we needed to build a new duct under. Things like that create unavoidable delays and, of course, it’s always at the back of our minds that local communities are desperate for the technology to arrive.”
Other major obstacles such as Hadrian’s Wall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Berwick Bridge, an Ancient Scheduled Monument, needed careful liaison with the National Parks, the local authorities and even the Secretary of State. As well as all digs being carried out under the watchful eye of an archaeologist. Mike added: “All the things that make Northumberland such an incredible place to live and work are also the things that make this roll-out difficult. In a large town or city a new fibre cabinet can be relatively simple to build and can provide services to hundreds of people. In Northumberland a cabinet can take months of planning followed by months of civil engineering and the end result may only be providing faster broadband to a handful of people. But for those people it’s absolutely vital this work takes place.”
Increasingly the best solution to reach remote and scattered communities in Northumberland is ultrafast ‘full fibre’. This replaces the cabinet technology used in many places so far, which works best where there are clusters of properties and easier access to power. Much of the future roll-out will be completed with ultrafast rather than superfast broadband technology. Mike explained: “In most areas, we try to take advantage of our existing underground network wherever possible, but often in Northumberland there’s no existing network where we need it, so we have to start from scratch. On country lanes this frequently involves traffic management or road closures and in very remote locations getting power to the new fibre cabinets can be extremely challenging. In the most rural communities we began changing our approach and we’re increasingly using Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) ultrafast broadband technology, where fibre travels direct to the property without the need for a fibre cabinet. Thanks to innovations in equipment and creative planning this technology is now available to more than 2,500 homes and businesses in Northumberland and will make up the vast majority of the future roll-out.”
Engineering equipment is constantly evolving to make work easier and less time consuming. The team are now using a ‘mole plough’ which can be used to dig channels in soft unsurfaced areas such as grass verges. This machine digs a trench, lays a readymade, fibre filled duct and then closes the trench all in one and the method is now being used the length and breadth of Northumberland. It has proved invaluable in bringing fibre to communities such as Longhoughton, Great Whittingham, Bellingham and Belsay.
A stronger, pre-prepared cable has also been developed which can be pushed through existing duct clearing minor blockages as it goes again saving time and the need to re-build damaged sections of existing duct. And when underground is not an option engineers are now using overhead fibre cables and tackling hard ground with rock hammers, which enable telegraph poles to be erected in locations where previously it would have been nearly impossible.
Mike said: “As engineers we are constantly looking for ways to work faster and more effectively. We want to take advantage of the very latest technology and equipment, and we’ll think on our feet where the usual method won’t work. We used a fishing rod to get fibre across the River Till at Crookham, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get faster broadband speeds where they need to be.”
Nearly 150,000 households and businesses in Northumberland are now able to connect to fibre broadband as a result of the iNorthumberland programme and BT’s commercial roll-out of the high-speed technology. Openreach’s network is open to all broadband service providers on an equal wholesale basis and so Northumberland households and businesses can benefit from highly competitive products and pricing from a range of providers.
For up to date information on the roll-out in Northumberland visit www.inorthumberland.org.uk.