Getting a faster connection in remote places
Show notes (summary)
Internet connections in outlying villages are not often the best, but is having a super-fast network always a good thing? Our latest guest is Marc Smith, who is majorly responsible for an unbelievably fast connection being available in his remote village and elsewhere on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Marc tells us how he and the community achieved this, and how there’s also a bit of a downside.
Transcript: Season 3 / Episode 2
Johnny Thomson 00:00
Internet connections in outlying villages are not often the best, but is having a super fast network always a good thing? Hi, everyone. I’m Johnny Thomson and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Now, a couple of years ago, I had a lovely chat with him Hermione Lamond from the small village of Elgol on the Isle of Skye. Hermione told me how her village hall shop had kept the locals going through the pandemic and how, without the internet, none of her great work would have been possible. Today, I’m joined by another resident of Elgol, Mark Smith, who is a freelance animator and also director of community broadband company Hebnet. Mark is majorly responsible for an unbelievably fast internet connection being available in his remote village and elsewhere on Skye and today we’re going to talk about he and the community achieved this, and whether it’s entirely a good thing. Hi, Mark, thanks for joining me.
Marc Smith 01:10
Hi Johnny, thanks very much for having me.
Johnny Thomson 01:13
Now, like we do for most of our podcast recordings Mark, you’ve joined me via the internet today, so let’s hope that after bigging up your internet connection, we don’t get any technical hitches.
Marc Smith 01:28
Well I hope so.
Johnny Thomson 01:29
That could be a bit embarrassing, but…
Marc Smith 01:30
Yeah, you might have some editing to do there.
Johnny Thomson 01:34
But anyway, before we talk about how you managed to, well speed things up there on Skye I guess, tell me how and when you came to be living there in the first place. And what exactly is it that you do for a living?
Marc Smith 01:49
Well, I originally lived just south of Edinburgh in a place called Penicuik and I started my business there. But then because you can work from anywhere, being a freelancer, myself and my partner decided to move to wherever we wanted. And we used to holiday up on Skye. So we though right, we’ll pick a place and there was two places available on Skye and we ended up in Elgol. And all I knew was that they had BT Broadband. So it wasn’t dial up, it was broadband. But I suppose it was only when I moved into the house that I did a speed-check and we got 0.47 Meg, which is even for 10 years ago is appalling.
Johnny Thomson 02:29
Yeah, so that’s megabytes per second, isn’t it when you say meg…
Marc Smith 02:32
Yeah megabytes per secondsecond, so 0.47. It was consistently, well I suppose it was consistently rubbishh, but it was consistently 0.47 megabytes. That was down, I can’t rememner I think upwards it would be less anyway. And most of my stuff was uploading because I finished my animations. So I’m an animator. So once I finished an animation, I would then upload it to the customer. And it was just, well, it wasn’t really terrible, but I didn’t I didn’t really think anything of it in all honesty, I just thought we chose to live in a remote place that comes with it.
Johnny Thomson 03:06
It’s digital animation that you do, yeah?
Marc Smith 03:09
Yeah. Oh, yes. Yeah, not the, I was gonna say not the good stuff that, you know, Walt Disney and Who Framed Roger Rabbit is, it’s more of the digital side of animation which I still I still love. I’ve been doing it for 14 years now and it’s still amazing. The fact that it allows you to work, wherever like, even when I used to well, I’d like to go on holiday to France again. But when I did, I could bring the laptop and I could work anywhere. I could always keep in a top of projects when I was away. And that was just, I still love that aspect of the job.
Johnny Thomson 03:38
And that poor connection that was a challenge for you and your kind of digital existence, I guess would have also been challenging for the community, including the wonderful village hall there that you have.
Marc Smith 03:52
Yeah totally, I’m not I’m not entirely sure, I don’t think anyone worked at home that I knew of when I first moved to the village, I can’t remember anyone working at home, but it was probably more down to you can’t rather than you know, like, if you’re given an option, there’s you can’t you can’t say yes to that if you’re on point four, seven. It’s just impossible.
Johnny Thomson 04:14
Just put it into perspective, I guess point four seven meg, if you tried to download a half hour soap opera or something like that, you’d be still be there next week, yeah?
Marc Smith 04:22
Oh, yeah. I mean, I think if you were to upload if you download a one megabyte file, because it’s never really exactly half. So say 20 megabytes would probably take about a minute, minute and a half to download with point four seven. Now on what I’ve got now, it’ll be about a second and a half. So it’s a considerable difference. And I remember if I was in the house, and I was on a Skype call my partner I was like, don’t answer emails, don’t do this, don’t do that. Because you can’t. If you were to do anything, even load a picture, it would cut the phone call off if you’re on Skype and a lot of our customers are abroad in America or Canada. So like, you need that communication. When there was a phone call it was oh no, please don’t cut out. It was quite embarrassing. It is embarrassing. You know the most basic thing a phone call. And I think back then I think I upgraded my EE phone that did overseas calls, just so I could call people on the mobile. Well, that’s half true, I had to leave the house and go up to the corner to make the phone call. That’s what I did. You know, looking back, it’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but that’s what I did.
Johnny Thomson 04:22
I can remember a holiday in Norfolk many many years ago where I literally had to drive down down the street and find this wall. There was one wall, you know, that if you stood next to it you could just about get a connection…
Marc Smith 05:15
You have to wear and tinfoil hat to make things work!
Johnny Thomson 05:50
Exactly, exactly. Brilliant. So as we’ve kind of indicated already, me in the introduction and you there, things have improved somewhat. So just talk me through what happened next Marc after you got there, and that wasn’t very good. How did things move on?
Marc Smith 06:08
Well, there was a few stages, there was a company called Tooway, but they did satellite broadband. And satellite broadband was OK. It gave you about 25 to 30 meg,which was good. But you’re limited to I think we had 100 Gig limit. And it doesn’t take long to use up that limit. I think it was £100 pound a month, so we had that installed. Well, I installed it, that’s what I used to do for a job as well, install satellite dishes and music systems. So I put that in the garden, because you can’t put them in walls in Skye because they blow off. So we put that in the garden, they gave us a good connection, but still phone calls were questionable because the ping… because the satellites are, they’re higher up than what the newer system is, so the ping was 800 milliseconds, which is, you know, give or take one second. So if I was to ask a question, it would take, it would take a second, two seconds, one to go up, one to come back down again. And it just had that delay, which I suppose if you watch a news report, back maybe like 5 or 10 years ago, that’s the same thing. It was a bit awkward, but it was very good. You could do anything you wanted to do it, but sometimes you had to keep an eye on your limit because if you hit that limit, you went down to basically slower than what BT was providing.
Johnny Thomson 07:21
Marc Smith 07:22
And it just so happened, that to get the internet to the Isle of Canna, it had to come to Elgol first and then bounce over, because they used dishes, like 5 gig dishes that goes from the mainland to Rum to Elgol. But no one in Elgol used it, and then straight over to Canna. So they bounce it over to Canna and I think the Isle of Soay as well, there’s three people on Isle of Soay, and that’s where it went to there. And I was just like, because I’m one of four directors of the Hebnet committee interest company. And I said to, it was Ian who runs the Rum side of things, well can I get a connection, please. And he went yeah that’s fine. So we put a connection on the garden and I think I got 15 meg, and it was about the ping was maybe 30 or 40 milliseconds, which is… a lot of time it’s the ping that makes it slow. You could have 100 meg, but if the ping is slow, everything feels slow. So because the ping was so low, it just it was, it was amazing. It was like we had entered the 21st century. It was amazing. We did all sorts, I mean we signed up to Netflix, you can start to use YouTube properly and you didn’t worry about the limit, the 100 gig limit because it was no limit. They just said if you’re doing any big downloads do it overnight, because it’s less congested then as well so you get a much better speed. So that’s what I ended up having. Everyone else in the village was like, oh can I come round and use your internet I need to download… Someone came round to download an update for Call of Duty or one of those games, and it’s like 100 gig or something. But they left the laptop overnight and they downloaded it. So a lot of people you’d see them in the garden using the internet. And I did say, this is the password, I put a router in the garden so people could then use the internet if they wanted to. Because everyone else was stuck, you know really were stuck. You can’t do anything with point four seven, even if it’s just trying to go through Facebook, it just wouldn’t load very well. So a lot of the time they did this and they’re like oh, can we get the system as well? Can we get the system as well was always the question. But then I can’t remember how it came about, I must have been at a party or something or had a drink in me, I was like well put the internet in, I’ll just give everyone a dish, I’ll speak to Ianand see if we can do network and he was quite keen to do that as well. So it just came up out that we got 65 dishes or so. It was all self funded. Everyone in Elgol paid £275 and we bought all the equipment, all the cables, everything we needed to put the system and then basically we put the network in. I think we’re now at 67 houses are all installed and they all get… there’s a mast up in the headland which supplies east and west of Elgol and there’s one down at the pier, which does the whole pier. You know there’s maybe nine or 10 houses down at the pier, it’s down a very steep hill so you need to have an extra one there. So yeah, that gives everyone between 20 and 50 meg, depending on who’s using it at that time, and what the household is doing. But what we’ve got now… So that system has been in for five years, five or six years now, and all the dishes are slowly starting to fail, you maybe get one every three months. It’s not that bad. But they’re starting to fail.I mean, last night our speed was 95 miles per hour. That was the gusts from last night. So they do take an absolute hammering, they’ve done extremely well. But it’s just their time has come. So luckily, last year or the year before EE were looking to put a mast into Elgol. And I don’t know how, why they wanted to speak to me, but they did. So they came around and I was walking around with these guys from EE just doing you know, I don’t know what I was there for. Maybe to build up numbers, but we were walking around discussing connections. And they said, oh we want to do something for the community. And I said tell you what, give us money. If you give us a donation to Hebnet community interest company, we can then buy fibre and do this, that and the next thing. And they oh no we can’t do it, there’s no spare money to do this. So I said that’s fine then. But he says oh we can put in the mast for it if you like, we can put the base in and run the trench for And I said oh that sounds good. But anyway, they sent me an email to say oh, we’ve just had a quote back from this company to put the mast site in for you. But for some reason, they included the quote and it was £15,000 and I was like ‘you said you had no money’. So I said tell you what, give us £15,000, we’ll go ahead and put the mast up, buy all the fibre for the entire village, all the equipment, or the little nodes that go into the houses. So we managed to buy all of those and pay, I was going to say his name is Chainsaw Charlie! Anyway, he digs the ditches for us. So yeah, he gets paid to dig the ditches. So all that money that they didn’t really have has gone towards running fibre. So now we’ve got 13 houses on fibre just now. By next year, we’ll probably have 30 or 40. And then I think one more year, because we only really do it between April and September because essentially we run out of money halfway through the year, we run out of money to pay myself and Charlie to basically dig ditches and put them into houses. And so you only do what you can do.
Johnny Thomson 12:41
So it sounds Marc like you’ve just basically took the bull by the horns as people say. Rather than sitting there waiting, you know for somebody to eventually come around and find you and give you the internet that you need, you’ve just basically thought to yourselves right well, we’re going to have to do this ourselves, yeah?
Marc Smith 13:02
Oh yeah, that’s I suppose, I don’t know if it’s all islands, but I know it’s certainly on the Skye, if you want something done just do it yourself. It’s always what you’ve got to do.
Johnny Thomson 13:11
And that’s the thing that fascinates me about this as I can imagine there’s probably a lot of people still, you know throughout the UK thinking and wishing that they had a better internet connection where they are, they’re literally just sitting and waiting and for somebody else to sort it out and in essence you’re proof that you don’t have to do that yeah?
Marc Smith 13:32
Well that’s right, yeah. I mean our costs like, we only charge a customer £15 per month. That’s I mean I don’t know what BT is now probably £30 odd per month for the broadband, but we are still… Hebnet have been £15 a month from the day they started and it’s not changed at all. And I think that’s a really good service, because if there’s an issue, for example BT would take seven days to come out to fix it, but when it’s Hebnet we’re basically out the same day. Someone drove through a ditch and ripped up our fibre cable and stopped the signal. Now within two hours I think, the connection was back on again.
Johnny Thomson 14:10
And that’s the good thing about it as well of course… the provider, you and some of the other people there in the community, need it as well exactly as you see, so you know if anything does go wrong, it’s gonna get fixed pretty quick because you need it as much as the next year on the island yeah?
Marc Smith 14:28
Exactly. I think there’s been an increase of people working from home and anytime we had put in the internet it was the last person to get the connection, because they didn’t want it, and we put it in and ‘I won’t use it’. I swear that like two weeks after he’d binge watched all of Breaking Bad and another TV show on Netflix. It’s like when you got it you realise how good the internet actually is. You can waste a lot of your life just scrolling through YouTube shorts and whatnot. But there’s so much stuff on there that you know, if you want to know how to fix a car, you can go on to YouTube and find that information. So I think people have realised there’s just so much more to what 0.47 megabytes can give you.
Johnny Thomson 15:11
Yeah, fascinating. I mean, we’ve talked quite a few times on this show about community businesses, but we tend to have talked about marketplaces and shops, you know, rather like Hermione developed herself. But it’s fascinating to imagine that you can also create a community business that is all about, you know, providing this network and infrastructure as well, which is tremendous.
Marc Smith 15:33
Oh yeah. It’s actually, when you think about how good it is, it’s amazing how it all works. Because I mean, so say if you have like a group, like I a small village in the UK, somewhere that doesn’t have decent broadband. If you can see someone with decent broadband or see something that… so say you can see an exchange, and it’s 15 miles away, but you’ve got line of sight to it, but it’s a way away, you can lease a line from BT or whoever has a connection on the exchange, put a dish on the exchange and send it back over to you. And then you have that… it’s basically like running a wire but wirelessly, that’s essentially what it’s like.
Johnny Thomson 16:13
I’ve, I’m kind of getting what you’re saying. It’s like when you’ve got like a spot in your house, which doesn’t receive the Wi Fi on your internet and so you know, you get something and you plug it in. You can see, you can hear how technical I am when I’m saying all of this, of course. You plug it in and it picks up the signal and you’re just talking about doing that on just a far bigger scale aren’t you basically.
Marc Smith 16:36
Oh, yeah, and it’s always much more reliable, I know what you’re talking about there, it’s much more reliable than that as well. It’s like the weather, you know Skye gets questionable weather at the best of times, but the weather doesn’t really affect it. You know, it’s the strangest thing, like, when there’s a storm, it doesn’t really go, your power might go down, but it doesn’t actually put the internet connection off. I don’t know, I don’t know why, but it’s just so good. So if, if one of the listeners or a group of the listeners of yours has an issue with the internet, or can see someone or wants to put something in their house, that gives them a better connection, they can share that with the community, you can create a company, and you don’t have to have a company, I suppose you could just share it with your community. But that’s how to do it because those dishes, I mean, they’re, they’re not as they’re £100, £120 for a dish. So you need two, one for your house, one for the next person’s house, or your neighbour’s house. It’s not that difficult to do.
Johnny Thomson 17:29
And these dishes, these these particular dishes that you’re talking about are not very big are they, they’re not.
Marc Smith 17:34
Oh, yeah, I’ve not got a video here. It’s a it’s, I don’t know how big. Fifteen centimetres, I would say, 15 centimetres, so they’re very, very small. If you want to go long distance, like what we do across the islands, you need to look big, you know, the dishes are maybe 50 centimetres. They’re not, they’re not horrendous. They’re not horrendous anyway, it’s totally manageable what you can do with them.
Johnny Thomson 17:56
Easier than putting a Sky dish on the side of your house?
Marc Smith 17:58
In fact it is, yeah.
Johnny Thomson 17:59
Tremendous. So that’s the advice really, is if you’re struggling with the internet, don’t sit and wait for somebody else to do it, set yourself up a community business and see what you can do yourself.
Marc Smith 18:15
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And there’s is a new system called Starlink. Whether you like Elon Musk or not, he created this system. And it’s satellite broadband, but their satellites are way lower in the atmosphere. So the ping, so it’s the same as the old system, but the ping is the same as fibre. It’s like having a fibre into the house. So you get 250 odd meg, with a ping about 25 milliseconds, and they align themselves. I put one in for a neighbour not long ago and you literally you could literally throw it in the ground and it’ll align itself and find all the dishes that it needs to in space. And then within 10 minutes it’s done its moving about, and you’ve got incredibly fast broadband in your house. And again, it’s cheaper than the old satellite broadband. It’s £70 a month or something. It’s much cheaper than what it was before. And see if you’re struggling for the internet that’s a good way. It’s an instant fix. You don’t have to do anything, you just put that dish in your garden. No alignment necessary. Just you can put a couple of breeze blocks on top of the stand if you want and it works straight out the box.
Johnny Thomson 18:15
Now listen, we’ve been very positive as we always usually are on this on this show, so far, but there is there is a slight potential negative side isn’t there in having a faster connection? Tell me about the cost of living there Marc, especially things like house prices and so on. Because there’s a connection here isn’t there, there’s a link, yeah?
Marc Smith 19:40
Yeah. Well, I suppose the cost of living, they do see it’s more expensive to live here, but where I am there’s no pub, so you can’t go out and spend your money in a pub. And so I think it’s all relative and in that respect. But because of where it is and obviously the COVID pandemic as well, people wanted to move to the country. But obviously, you can’t move to the country unless you have decent broadband. So having the broadband there has been really good, but it’s also… I get phone calls, if someone’s going to a house for sale in Elgol and I got a phone call, to say what’s the broadband like? And then I tell them, I always say first of all, are you going to move here. Everyone’s oh, yes, we’re going to move here and blahdee blah. And then you don’t hear from them again and then the house is gone for a ridiculous amount of money and it’s just gone to a holiday home they are going to come up every so often, it’s just like just a second home and not as a holiday home. So it lies dormant most of the time. And just your heart sinks when you know they’re not going to be there and having superfast internet, I can work you know, because a lot of the time if you work in a big city, you can no still work from home as well maybe three days a week. So it makes it possible to come up to places like Skye, you know you could do a very long weekend, but also catch up on work when you’re there. And having the decent broadband has, it’s just… positives and negatives. It’s o disheartening to know that, like when I just I always ask them, will you still live here? Most most of the time it’s a no. And struggling for families to move into these places. My two, I’ve got three children, twin boys who are ten, they were the last two pupils in the primary, local primary school, and they had to leave at the end of primary five. And they’ve now got the pleasure of driving a single track road for half an hour, 15 miles in and 15 miles back every day, because there’s no other… well there is kids who are younger than five, but not in the primary school. So that primary school has now closed. And if you know what councils are like, it will be a real challenge to get that primary school back open again. And a lot of it is because people are buying properties that are not even living there.
Johnny Thomson 21:54
Yeah. Because they’ve got the most homes there, but there’s no people in them.
Marc Smith 21:58
Yeah, yeah. Basically, that honestly, when you go along, there’s just there’s a lot of empty, like stunningly beautiful houses. They’re just lying empty. And sometimes you feel like, why am I given them? Why am I giving them fibre, it’s not being used to build up the community. It’s just, it’s part it’s part of the problem.
Johnny Thomson 22:16
I was just gonna say another potential tip there, you know, if you if you want to stop all of this holiday home problem in rural areas, you know, the secret is… turn the internet off. Yeah?
Marc Smith 22:28
I know. Yeah, get some bolt cutters and start cutting through all the cables we’ve been laying!
Johnny Thomson 22:31
And then everyone will go away and everything will go back to how it used to be.
Marc Smith 22:36
It’s just Yes. There’s no, there is no solution to that problem. Because money will always talk. It will always talk. So it is just the way it is.
Johnny Thomson 22:46
Yes and the world, the world changes around us, and we have to we have to change with it. It’s as simple as that, isn’t it?
Marc Smith 22:51
Yeah, yeah. Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Luckily, there’s a lot of there’s four or five kids who are below five in the surrounding area. So there is a potential to get the school opening again, which is really nice. And I hope it does open again, because the school was on… I mean if anyone just Google’s Elgol Primary School, it’s on the beach, like the windows look out to the harbour and my kids I know they’ve seen a few dolphins around the pier and stuff. It’s a great place to grow up. And I thought that my youngest would also get to have that experience as well.
Johnny Thomson 23:24
And tell our listeners Marc what one of your kids wants to be because it’s not an animator is it, tell them what it is.
Marc Smith 23:29
Och a fisherman. One wants to be fisherman, yeah
Johnny Thomson 23:33
Which is fantastic. You know what I mean, I think that’s tremendous that you’ve made your way there and then, you know, the real traditional industry.
Marc Smith 23:41
Oh yeah, aye anything traditional you don’t need the internet for.
Johnny Thomson 23:47
Absolutely. Fantastic. Well yeah interesting. Be careful what you wish for kind of.
Marc Smith 23:53
Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Johnny Thomson 23:54
When it comes to comes to fast internet. Well listen, it’s been great having a blether, as you say in those parts of the world, I know. And I know how much you love living there, where you do Marc. Keep enjoying the beauty of the place and the lifestyle there as well, of course.
Marc Smith 24:14
Excellent. There’s one more story, can I tell you when we think about the village hall?
Johnny Thomson 24:19
Marc Smith 24:20
Well, there was there was a wedding in Elgol and they were holding the honeymoon in the village hall. And normally in these places, like everything’s cash, you’ve got to have cash to pay for drinks and stuff. And we went down to the wedding and they were, all of a sudden they had a sum-up machine, you know like a card machine, so you could go to the bar and pay for things with a card. Which I don’t think I pay for a drink all night, because when I went to the bar, because it’s easier to pay for someone else’s drink because you’ve got your card out, oh so you want to drink Marc, obviously I’m going to say yes and they put it on the card. And it’s that thing there, you don’t have to go drive an hour round trip to Braodford to go and collect cash before at night out in Elgol, you can now just put your card on the device and that’s it done. And that’s because the internet. It’s fast enough, point four seven megabyte wouldn’t be fast enough to do that. But the Hebnet system or anything over one meg means that people can use their cards to pay for drinks. And that’s, that to me was like, it was quite a proud moment actually, it’s quite a nice thing that that’s what… it allowed people to drink more and buy me a drink, when I went to the bar oh stick it on the card. You know, it was amazing. It really was amazing.
Johnny Thomson 25:33
I love it. So yes, you’re sitting there thinking I am responsible for all this drinking basically. Totally negated any of the health benefits and so on that you mentioned earlier of there not been a pub there? Yeah?
Marc Smith 25:46
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.
Johnny Thomson 25:50
Well done Marc. You know what I mean, tremendous. You deserve a pat on the back.
Marc Smith 25:53
Do my bit for the community there.
Johnny Thomson 25:54
Definitely, of course, yeah. Well, you know, there’s some things in the community that are really important, and it’s good to hear that you’re maintaining that. That’s great Marc. I’ve really enjoyed the chat you know. It’s been tremendous and say hello to Hermione as well next time you bump into her please?
Marc Smith 26:06
Yes, it’s been good fun.
Johnny Thomson 26:13
Fantastic. Brilliant Marc, listen thanks again. And that’s about all for this episode of our podcast folks. Many thanks to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster, for making our podcast possible and whose services you can discover more about at VillageGuard.com. And to online booking system provider Hallmaster, who also sponsor our podcast and can be found at hallmaster.co.uk. You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village church and community halls, and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again soon with another episode. For more information, please visit thevillagehallspodcast.com where you’ll also find links to our social media pages. Thanks again for listening in. And until the next time, goodbye for now.