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This page is under construction. As time permits I will try to complete a full timeline from our initial discovery of what “up to 8Mbps” actually means, to the present day.

Preface

This blog has been created with the intention of helping any group that wants to develop their own wireless broadband system.

You can either read this as a straight chronological record of events or use the index to jump straight to the relevant section. At the end of each section you can navigate forwards or backwards in time or return to the index.

Entries mostly consist of edited progress reports, minutes of meetings and emails from me to various addressees.

Thanks are due to Professor Peter Buneman and William Waites of Edinburgh University for their encouragement, guidance and patience.

Much use has been made of information from many of the people who attended the Community Broadband Meeting at SMO on Skye.

A special mention should be made of the Tegola and HebNet websites which contain much theoretical and practical information. 

The broadband team here in Achmore consists of the following:-

Phil Game, Joe Grimson, Geoff Harrington, Hamish Howat Hurst, Mary MacBeth, Neil MacRae

None of us have a lot of experience in networks but we are all willing to learn!

Phil Game is responsible for the contents of this blog; he is responsible for any errors.

Index

2009/12/01: Frustration. This details the start of our campaign to improve our broadband service.

2010/01/28: Results of a local survey. The results are in and the awful truth dawns we will never get more than 0.5 Mbps bandwidth.

2010/02/21: Some explanations from BT. Ian Shank’s who is the Head of Scottish Affairs at BT Scotland gives us some very useful background information.

In April 2010 our Community Council folded and did not resume until late 2011. However we did follow development’s at BT and in December 2010...

2010/12/13: We’re in a race to nowhere. We try and fail to win a place for an upgrade in BT’s Race to Infinity Competition.

The reformed Community Council again gets involved in broadband.

2012/11/08: Our first step. Inspired by the Broadband event on Skye we decide to see if we can build our own broadband system.

2013/03/23: Equipment is ordered.

2013/03/30: Greetings from a standalone laptop.

2013/05/09: All links active. We are ready to run a demo but broadband speed drops to unusable.

2009/12/01: Frustration

This is an extract from an email sent by Phil to everyone in the area which started our investigations into our poor broadband speeds. 

A few months back Mary & I decided we wanted broadband and so we looked around for the best deal. Some of the providers we contacted told us that it would not be viable for them to provide a service in Achmore as BT would apply a surcharge to them which would increase their charges over those from BT. Eventually we found someone suitable at a lower cost than BT - Madasafish. We signed up with them and were sent a confirmation from Plusnet (who had bought Madasafish).

Then nothing happened so after a while we chased Plusnet to be told our order had been cancelled by BT! It turns out BT own Plusnet.

It then appeared we had only one choice, BT. Their service was advertised as “at up” to 8Mbps. However on contacting BT we were told that the best service we would get would be 2Mbps and when we gave them our postcode they told us that due to our distance from the exchange (we are about a kilometre from the exchange) it was unlikely we would get better than 0.5 Mbps.

So we signed up with BT and indeed found that the best speed we could get was just under 0.5 Mbps.

However on comparing notes with others in the area it appears that everyone we have spoken to has been given the same story. Everyone we have asked is getting around 0.5 Mbps even if they live a few metres from the exchange. We have yet to find anyone using the exchange that does not have their broadband service from BT or via a BT telephone line (e.g. Sky)

It would therefore appear that BT have a monopoly as provider and have capped the service at 0.5mbps to make the maximum amount from their captive subscribers

You are probably aware that the Scottish Government has had various initiatives to ensure that rural areas get a broadband service and Westminster has stated that there will be a phone line tax to pay for everyone to be upgraded to at least 2Mbps.

So at the last community council meeting it was decided that we would write to our MSP / MP and see if they can help improve things.

To give us as much ammunition as possible it was decided that we would contact everyone in the area and ask for their experiences of broadband.

If you do not know your broadband speed you can easily find some free software to run a test. If you search through Google there are thousands of websites to test broadband speeds so it is obviously a very important topic. 

This is the website we used to test our broadband upload and download speeds.

www.mybroadbandspeed.co.uk

others have used

www.speedtester.bt.com.

Our speeds were 505 kbps (i.e. 0.5 Mbps) download, 232 kbps upload.

I would be grateful if you would let me know:-

    1) Who supplies your broadband and if you had any difficulties getting the provider of choice.

    2) The speed for upload and download.

    3) Roughly how far you are from the exchange, which is just opposite the square.

    4) Whether you are happy with the speeds and costs. 

I will then collate all the results for the community council to forward.

I think you would be quite disappointed if you went to buy a car and were told that the one you wanted was not available because a rival manufacturer had a monopoly. So you reluctantly agree to a model from the sole provider advertised as having a top speed of 80 miles an hour and then found out it only does 5 mph max!

Back to the Index

2010/01/28: Results of a local survey.

This is an extract from an email sent by Phil to everyone in the area giving feedback and the results of the survey of our poor broadband speeds. 

This topic was discussed at this Tuesday’s community council meeting and the decision made to start low key with BT asking them to meet with us to discuss the situation and see what plans they have for improvements in the future. We are aware that it will be hard work dealing with BT but we feel we should try to talk to them in the first instance.

To that end I have sent Neil a draft letter to send out as chairman of the community council.

It would seem likely that most of the other community council areas around us have the same problem and in due course it will probably make sense to see if we can join forces with them as we escalate the problem.

Here is a summary of our situation:-

The average broadband speed in the U.K. is 4Mbps.

The average broadband speed from BT is 3 Mbps.

The average speed in Achmore / Plockton is ½ Mbps and is not dependant on distance from the exchange.

We had 20 replies for Achmore exchange, 2 for Plockton.

Those that responded on the Plockton exchange have the same problems as Achmore.

There is 1 person who is happy with the service.

There are 2 people happy with speed, but think costs are too high.

There is 1 person that will not sign up with BT until speed / costs are improved.

There is 1 person who cannot return to Achmore to work unless higher speeds are available.

There is 1 person who reported real problems with speed affecting their business.

Several people wanted an ISP other than BT but were forced to use BT.

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2010/02/21: Some explanations from BT.

This is an extract from an email sent by Phil to everyone in the area giving feedback and the results of the survey of our poor broadband speeds. 

Thanks to Neil's efforts we have managed to open a line of communications with Ian Shanks who is the Head of Scottish Affairs at BT Scotland.

Ian has been very frank in his responses to our questions and this has certainly clarified the situation for me. However it could be that some / all of what he said was already known to others in which case may I suggest you skip over the next few paragraphs.

Here is a summary of what I learnt:-

  • BT must provide voice telephony to all by regulation however no such regulation exists for broadband and so all decisions by BT are based on commercial viability only. Our exchange was not commercially viable to install broadband.
  • We do not have a "full platform" exchange, we have an "exchange activate" (EA) exchange.  EA is broadband on the cheap & was jointly funded by BT and the Scottish Government to the tune of £16.5 million pounds each. This paid for every exchange (bar 21 in the Western Isles which have a radio system) to be broadband enabled. The crucial difference being that the EA exchanges did not get their cable capacity back to the main network increased. This bottleneck in the cable capacity was alleviated by placing a speed limit of 512 Kbps on each port.
  • Therefore the maximum speed each user can achieve is 512 Kbps as this is limited at the exchange. Although the limit is per user if everyone were to use the system at the same time then speeds would drop below 512 Kbps. Length of cable from the exchange is of little relevance given that our speeds are limited by the exchange.
  • Because of the way EA was set up there is only a limited number of ISP who will provide a service although all ISPs were given the opportunity to request ports.
  • The full list of service providers at our exchange is:-
    • Abel Internet
    • AOL
    • BT Retail
    • Entanet
    • Scotnet
    • Telecomplete
  • We have two fibre cables serving our exchange, one via Kyle and the other via Achnasheen. BT won’t say how much spare capacity there is on the cables. However there are spare ports available for new customers.
  • BT cannot justify an upgrade to our exchange on commercial terms. BT can't / won't provide costs for upgrades to the exchange or the network. The most I can get from them is it is in the order of tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds.
  • BT understand that the government have said almost everyone in the UK will get at least 2Mbps by 2012 and this will be paid for by the government.
  • A full platform exchange has speeds up to 8Mbps but in reality you have to be on top of the exchange to get that performance, 6 Mbps is more realistic.
  • At these speeds the state of the cables, joints and interference from other (non BT) sources do have an effect and performance will drop off with distance. Assuming we have decent cables even if you were 4Km from the exchange we would see much better speeds than 512 Kbps.
  • The maximum speed possible over copper wires using the latest technology is 20 Mbps; this requires an upgrade to the exchange beyond full platform to the next generation of equipment which is 21 CN.
  • Plusnet, although owned by BT, made it's own arrangements for exchange activate and decided not to offer a service.

What do we do next?

A fair number of Exchange activate exchanges have already been upgraded or have a date scheduled to be upgraded using money from the Scottish Government. Plockton has already been upgraded to full platform.

At the next community council meeting (next Tuesday, 23rd Feb.) I will raise the issue with our local councillor. They may take it up on our behalf; if not there are two MSPs who are specialising in this topic, Peter Peacock & Dave Thompson.

Shall we see what sort of deal we can get through other providers? Would we consider moving on mass from BT to a rival to see if we can get a discount?

Thanks to all the people who have sent in stats.

Please pass this email on to anyone not on the circulation list above who you know to be on broadband. It's not too late to register an interest. The more people we can get to join in the better the case we can put forwards for an upgrade.

Please keep the information coming in.

Thanks again

 

Phil

 

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2010/12/13: We’re in a race to nowhere.

Dear all,

It's taken me a little while to obtain the results of the Race to Infinity Competition, but finally here they are.

We had 28 votes out of 78 registered connections, i.e. 36%.

You may well have seen the top 6 in the press, they are:-

    Blewbury

    Innerleithen

    Baschurch

    Madingley

    Caxton

    Whitchurch

They all received 100% votes, i.e. everyone eligible to vote did so! A little difficult to believe!

As far as I can tell BT did not publish the results and rankings of all the exchanges, just the winners.

I can see that this information would be extremely useful to BT especially if they have exclusive use of it!

There is a website http://racetoinfinityandbeyond.veadas.net/league which supposedly has the full results; but we are not listed!

According to our 36% vote the results on this website show we came 18th. out of over 5,000 exchanges

However I was rather dubious as we were not listed by name and so I contacted Ian Shanks, Head of Scottish Affairs at BT and he gives our official ranking as 42nd.

Not a bad effort, but unfortunately too low to automatically qualify for a visit from BT to upgrade our exchange.

Hopefully our votes will be taken into consideration by BT when decisions are being made about the order of upgrades. 

Thanks to everyone that took part in the vote.

 

Phil

 

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2012/11/08: Our first step.

Hi Peter,

First, I must say thank you for a very useful day at SMO last month.

It was excellent and Mary and I both came away with our heads full!

It was good to learn that others faced with the same problems as ourselves have managed to overcome them...

Thanks to what I learnt  from you, the event at SMO and the various websites people have set up I have been able to put together:-

An outline methodology
Get our objectives clear
Start to define our Statement of Requirements.

I have also been a very frequent visitor to the Ubiquiti website!

A very rough costing suggests we will be able to fund the project ourselves with a loan from the Community Council to buy enough equipment to set up a test bed. Hopefully the test bed and a demonstration of the improvement in speed will be all that is needed to convince people to sign up. 

Last Tuesday was our Community Council meeting and I was able to get approval of the three documents and agreement to start our own broadband project here in Strome Ferry / Achmore.

Our next step will be a survey to see who will leave BT and join the Community Broadband Project. I am waiting for a change to be made to our website so I can document the project and then I shall start that process.

Once we know how many people are likely to join us (and where they are located) I will start the feasibility study. 

It's very early days but at least we have taken the first step.

Mary & I have been up to look at the old TV repeater on the hill above the village, the power cable is still there on the ground and local folk say it is still serviceable "apart from the two metres missing thanks to a digger some years back". Apparently very little would be required to fix it and get power up to the top of the hill.

From the transmitter you can see the High School in Plockton which is very close to the BT exchange. It is also possible to see every house in Achmore and Braeintra. Just over the top of the hill the old TV receiver is still in place (with power cable) and from there I can see right up Loch Carron to Strathcarron. There is still much work to do to check the line of sight for houses in Strome Ferry, Ardnarff and the Glen but it does look promising.

Regards

Phil

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2013/03/23: Equipment is ordered.

Hi Peter and Will,

Congratulations on getting Allanton connected!

It's been a while since I last sent you an update; we are making progress albeit slowly.

It would appear that the bandwidth in Plockton has deteriorated in the past few months. However we have now found someone close to the exchange with 6Mbps, which will do for the demo.

I circulated the feasibility study in January, but due to family illness we didn't have the meeting to discuss it until last Thursday the 14th March. It was a good meeting and we decided we would proceed with the next two steps; set up a test environment, and run a demo to show that Plockton exchange can give us at least 5Mbps.

We plan to set up a small "steering group" of volunteers so we can proceed quicker.

I ordered the equipment for the test bed and demo a few days ago and expect delivery this Thursday, the 28th March:-

2 x NanoBridge M5 22dBi & 3 x Nanostation M5.

We are looking to switch everyone from their BT Home Hub to an Ubiquiti AirRouter 150, which unfortunately is out of stock at LinITX and much more expensive elsewhere! But due back in stock in a couple of weeks so no real problem.

I was also going to get a reel of Tough Cable but that's out of stock until the end of May, which is not so good. I've ordered plain Cat5e to get us started. What cable did you use for external work?

I'm now working my way through the airOS User guide! Do you have a sample configuration you could send me for the Nanobridge & Nanostation?

I have been exchanging emails with Alison Macleod in Applecross, who tells me Will will be going over to help them. We have been looking to see if we might be able to share resources. Applecross are getting their signal from Broadford and are looking to use Torridon as a backup exchange. I think it might just be possible for us to "see" Broadford from the roof of the school in Plockton (I haven't tried this yet). If so, then maybe we can share backup facilities. I.e we have the option of connecting Torridon, Broadford, Plockton & Lochcarron BT exchanges. We may also be able to share some maintenance tasks somewhere down the line.

The website www.samknows.com says that Portree exchange is to get 24Mbps by the end of May. A beacon on the top of Raasay would cover a large area of east Skye and the mainland! Do you know of any other projects in the area?

HIE tell me that the deal with BT will be broadcast any day now. I hope there is enough concrete detail in there to help us decide whether to concentrate on Lochcarron, Plockton or Broadford!


For the moment Applecross and ourselves will both proceed independently as our time-scales may turn out to be quite different. In the meantime I will concentrate on Plockton and look for a site in Lochcarron as well as Broadford for our backup exchange.

To remind you of our requirements. We have 44 users signed up and may go to more than 60 in total. We expect to use 3 or 4 8Mbps bonded lines. Hopefully our volume trial will give us a better idea of the exact number of lines we will need.

However the big stumbling block on capacity is that people do not want to migrate over to our new system until their current BT contract expires. This means we will cut over an average of 3 or 4 households a month. Buying 4 bonded lines up front with only a handful of subscribers for the first few months will cripple our budget.

Are there any suppliers out there who will agree to us taking one line for three months, then adding a second, then a third after another 3 or 4 months without penalty?

Regarding your last email and getting the signal to Strome Ferry; my current thinking is to put an access point up on Strome Hill for the two houses at the top of Strome Ferry and this will also serve the two houses in Ardnarff! For the three houses at the bottom of Strome Ferry hill near the water's edge we will probably put an access point in North Strome, linked back to Plockton.

Not very elegant and maybe we can do better when we have kit here and can run some tests. We decided to put Strome Ferry near the end of the implementation plan so we can do the easier connections first.

I've exchanged a few emails with Community Broadband Scotland (CBS), but the response has been mostly been "we will deal with your query when the CBS team is fully up and running". At our meeting to discuss the feasibility study the issue of asking CBS for a grant was raised and the verdict was that we should not delay our schedule. Applications for funding with CBS are to be made next month, at the meeting to discuss the feasibility study we decided if the money is available when we need it, we will accept it. If it will delay our project then we will carry on and raise the money ourselves by issuing bonds.

I have some questions for you regarding licensing.

I note that Applecross are going to apply for an Ofcom License and I see from the HUBS website that the Ubiquiti kit does fall into band C which requires a license. However I note that one of the configuration options on airOS is to select the frequency so I can avoid band C.

So can I avoid buying a license if I restrict the set up here so I do not use band C even though the equipment has the ability to transmit in that range? Or do I need a license because the kit could use band C.

Is it wise to restrict the frequency and not use band C?

Sorry to trouble you with this but  I see that the license takes 7 - 10 days to issue, so if I am going to buy it I would rather do it now instead of either delaying things for 10 days or breaking the law.

Regards

Phil

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2013/03/30: Greeting from a standalone laptop

Dear All,

This message is coming to you from a standalone laptop
The laptop is connected to a Nanostation in the house by an Ethernet cable
The Nanostation in the house is connected to a Nanostation in the barn by a wireless link
The Nanostation in the barn is connected to a Nanobridge in the barn by an Ethernet cable
The Nanobridge in the barn is connected to a Nanobridge in the house by a wireless link
The Nanobridge in the house is connected to our BT Home hub by an Ethernet cable

Because the link is such a short distance I have not needed to use the dishes on the Nanobridges.

I have just watched a TV recording using the wireless links with no buffering

The distances involved are so short that they are not a good indication of the speed we will get when implemented...

But for what it's worth:-
The Nanobridge link (without dishes) is 90 Mbps
The Nanostation link (with their built-in antenna) is 270Mbps

Of course the Internet through our BT exchange is still 0.5 Mbps

Regards

Phil

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2013/05/09: All links active.

Hi Peter & Will,

Quite a bit done over the past four weeks:-

Testing:-

We have restored power to the old TV repeater site, it's working fine plugged into someone's garage at the moment.
 

We have tested the Nanostations and Nanobridges from our house to the hill and back, speeds (from the Ubiquiti built in speed test) in the order of 70 - 80 Mbps each way 140 - 160 in total. I'm really surprised how easy it was to set up the Nanobridges.

We have tested the Nanostation on the hill to give access to our house and the hall simultaneously and the angle is just too large, so have reverted to one test to the house followed by moving it to point to the hall ready for the demo. Minor irritation really.

Yesterday we set up the link to Plockton, even without tweaking the dishes and a partially obscured line of sight we managed 20 Mbps each way i.e. 40 Mbps in total end to end (i.e. Nanostation at the house to Nanobridge at Plockton).

Unfortunately our test seems to have coincided with a major problem at the Plockton exchange. Last week we tested the broadband speed in Plockton at 6.5 to 6.75 Mbps but yesterday it was 0.45 Mbps. In other words it was actually slower that Achmore!

I'm told that the Openreach van was parked outside the exchange for most of the day yesterday so hopefully it will be fixed and we can then run our test again. If that is successful then everything is in place to run the demo in the hall.

Once the demo proves we can achieve at least 5 Mbps and everyone should give me their dates to switch from BT. Once I have that we can start to plan the build and roll-out.

Regards

Phil

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