How fibre broadband transformed Cornwall

Alun Morgan shakes his head and puffs out his cheeks. He remembers a time when his staff had to take turns to download files over the internet; how they used to go home at 6pm and then deal with their emails because the office connection was so deplorably slow.

A 1.5Mbits/sec line shared between 28 staff sounds like a wistful tale from 1999, but it isn’t. This is how his Truro-based manufacturing firm was operating only eight months ago. And then a BT van pulled into his car park.

When you say you’re going to do 80-90% fibre, everyone thinks they’re in the 80-90%

Helped in no small part by more than £50 million of EU funding, BT is halfway through a rollout that will see between 80% and 90% of Cornwall’s homes and businesses benefit from a fibre connection – whether it’s right up to their door or just as far as the local street cabinet.

It’s helping to transform lives and livelihoods in a largely rural county, where the debilitating effect of long ADSL lines on connection speeds is greater than it is in most areas of the country.
The lucky ones, such as Morgan’s resistor manufacturing firm Arcol, have seen their connections hurtle from near-dial-up speeds to hundreds of megabits per second, opening up business opportunities such as online backup and remote working.

And then there are the unlucky ones, the 10-20% of Cornwall residents who don’t have fibre and won’t receive it, either because they’re too remote to fit BT’s business case, or because they’re victims of the postcode lottery that can leave even urban dwellers dumped outside of the fibre footprint.

“When you say you’re going to do 80-90% fibre, everyone thinks they’re in the 80-90%,” laments Dr Ranulf Scarbrough, director of BT’s Superfast Cornwall programme, with the wearied shrug of a man who’s had his ears chewed by expectant customers.

So what is life like on either side of this fibre divide?

Thrust into the fast lane

When you first hear Arcol’s Alun Morgan describe how the firm coped before fibre broadband, you begin to wonder how the business even survived. “Like a man out in the car park had his foot on the line” is how Morgan describes life on his sluggish 1.5Mbits/sec ADSL line.

He laughs as he recalls the conversations he used to have with cold-callers ringing up to offer him online backup services, and the despondency in their voices when he told them how many months of solid uploading it would take to back up all 27GB of the company’s critical data.

Instead, Morgan relied on tapes for off-site backups, admitting that he often “found a tape in the back of the van and thought ‘that should be in the safe’”. Now things are a little less haphazard. With fibre connections at both the office and his nearby home, Morgan backs up the company data to a NAS drive in his back-bedroom office.

Arcol’s Olympic bandwidth

Find out just how fast Arcol’s broadband is

The arrival of fibre across the county has brought other business benefits. As many as five of Morgan’s employees now routinely work from home.

Having only a handful of staff working from home might not save the business much money, but the employees feel the economic benefit: they don’t have to pay expensive petrol bills to drive back and forth from the office every day, which is one reason why they might choose to continue working for Arcol rather than an employer closer to home.

Morgan can now call on expertise from further afield, by giving them remote access to Arcol’s network. “The man who sorts out the ERP [enterprise resource planning] system lives in Windsor – we couldn’t do that six months ago.”

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