Tech Life in a Rural Place That Isn't London

By Gary Cutlack on at

It's a bit "London!" around here sometimes, isn't it? London's getting a new train. People ride bikes in London now, don't you know? London's getting a special type of coffee only for London people. London's got a new skyscraper shaped like a spatula. And so on.

Kat suggested it might be nice to talk about what it's like trying to exist as a bleeding-edge digital native in the UK's nether regions that don't have access to fibre broadband, 3G, or even terrestrial TV and radio reception. Not to mention the internet that we do get usually breaks when it gets too windy.

What it's like to live somewhere like this, where the streets aren't paved with crisp packets and there are fewer Gs floating about in the sky?

Precisely where I live isn't important, plus I'd also rather not say because I don't want the London types coming up here in their inappropriately flimsy footwear and polluting my rural nirvana with their discarded coffee containers, holding up their tablets to take photos of the mysterious horned cows and temporarily blocking my amazing view.

You might live somewhere similar. The countryside. There's quite a lot of it in the UK between London and the north, east and west coasts of the island. Ask Julia Bradbury on Twitter, there are fields and hills everywhere once you're outside of the M25 bit of the country that most people only seem to want to talk about.

If you do see green rather than grey out of your window, you might also find it pretty frustrating that you don't have anywhere near the number of choices and options that urban tech enthusiasts take for granted these days.

While most lucky readers of this site get to juggle networks in pursuit of the best mobile contract and infinity +1 SMS message allowances, I have no such choice. Only Vodafone's mobile mast signal reaches my house, so there's no flip-flopping between Three and T-Mobile to milk more minutes for me. The handful of Vodafone MVNOs are the only other choices, and they use the same masts so don't offer any extra Gs.

Plus, like many people in rural areas, my mobile data connection just says "G". Just the one G, the ancient, pre-3G data format that's roughly equivalent in download speed and ping times to sending a message down a pipe tied to the tail of a rat.

And as for fibre... nope. None. BT's currently at the stage of issuing press releases about contracting boats to lay cables to deliver fibre to some parts of the island area I live in, but we're looking at 2016 before anything happens and anyone here actually gets hooked up.

People in towns and cities may complain that their local cabinet isn't yet on the fibre timetable -- imagine if that applied to your entire county.

Plus there's a huge lack of choice when it comes to internet provider. The LLU process hasn't arrived up here, because there are hardly any houses to hook up and therefore no money to be made, so the local exchange is for BT customers and ISPs that resell BT lines only.

So there's no option to pay less/more for a faster alternative connection. You get BT's pipe, hardware and maximum speeds even if you switch to one of its mainstream competitors. Virgin Media hasn't been up here at all. Not even for a holiday.

Still, it looks like this, which is of some consolation when the wind breaks the internet:

There's a new local broadband startup that's just been seed funded, looking to introduce independent broadband connections to parts of the network BT hasn't yet been able to offer the mythical 2Mb broadband minimum connection speed, let alone the joys of fibre. If it does come to anything, it's years away.

And don't go thinking it's all OK because there's still telly to watch. There's no terrestrial network along this part of the coast, which has been depressing house prices (and spoilt incoming residents like me) for decades.

The lack of terrestrial TV means Sky or the Freesat world are the only option for getting TV, so there's a price premium to pay in order to get yourself set-up for even the most basic human right of being able to watch rubbish telly.

not-london-2

That, believe it or not, is the remnant of a DIY local TV rebroadcasting network, set-up by a handful of locals and a visiting engineer, in order to bounce a TV signal to a few homes from a rare signal area up in the hills. A local gent told me they did this, and ran cables for miles around mountains and across headlands, in order to get the TV working to watch Prince Charles marry Diana in 1981.

He might have been pulling my leg on that last part, and it's all been smashed apart by the wind now so there's no way to see if it actually works, but these broken electronics serve as a reminder that rural spots rely on ingenuity and making do with what you have.

So remember, while you're salivating over your unlimited 3G SIM cards and complaining about your simply unbearable ping times and speed test results, a lot of people in the UK are still stuck in notspots, halfspots and slowspots, struggling to even view a simple web page on their telephone or watch YouTube on their PCs, let alone stream video at more than three frames a fortnight on the mobile network.

Gary Cutlack writes bits for Gizmodo UK from his home in rural Scotland. More photos of mountains and some of dead seals and nice bits of driftwood can be found on his Twitter page

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