Harrogate villagers' nightmare broadband situation

Broadband nightmare - Janet Edmunds, Pat Anderson and Deborah Powell of The Washburn Heritage Centre at Fewston near Harrogate. Picture by Adrian Murray (1711262AM1)
Broadband nightmare - Janet Edmunds, Pat Anderson and Deborah Powell of The Washburn Heritage Centre at Fewston near Harrogate. Picture by Adrian Murray (1711262AM1)

Governments have been talking big about broadband for years while TV adverts promise speeds of infinity and beyond in the style of Buzz Lightyear.

There’s certainly been plenty of action in our predominantly rural district on that score in recent years, thanks to a link-up between BT, North Yorkshire County Council and NYnet, the management and technical services company.
‘Phases 1 and 2’ of Superfast North Yorkshire, as this long-term project is officially known, has so far connected up more than 165,000 properties locally.
And the good news is that the county council is almost ready to launch ‘phase 3’.
Villages which have recently been switched on successfully to the industry standard - that’s download speeds of 25Mbps or more - include Dacre Banks,Flaxby, Huby, Kirkby Overblow, Minskip, North Rigton, Scotton and Sicklinghall.
But what’s it like to be the village that’s been left behind by broadband?
Fewston located eight miles from Harrogate and ten from Pateley Bridge isn’t the only village bypassed up to now by the digital revolution.
This newspaper reported on the on-going problems of villages round Masham.
But this small village in the Dales steeped in history does seem to be in a worse situation than most.
Out of 53 households in Fewston, 37 are unable to obtain fast broadband through Openreach, the division of telecommunications company BT which installs and maintains all those essential cables and wires.
Broadband speeds of local residents are often as low as 1.2Mbps - or less. Forget Skype or FaceTime, the negative effect on their daily lives is huge.
Snail’s pace broadband means running a business or doing school work from home is almost impossible, while communicating with friends and loved ones is a daily trial.
Poor connectivity has even effected the crown in the jewel of Fewston - Washburn Heritage Centre attached to the side of the village church, St Michael’s.
This award-winning heritage centre and community space is owned by Fewston and Blubberhouses Parochial Church Council and manned by nearly 100 dedicated volunteers from local villages and urban areas such as Harrogate.
With a foundation stone laid by Archbishop John Sentamu, since it first opened in 2011 Washburn Heritage Centre has been described as a “beacon of good practice” in Harrogate and District Volunteering Oscars and already boasts a membership of 398.
Officially opened by Sir Gary Verity, it has all the right credentials but all the wrong broadband speeds. Despite the success of its regular events and exhibitions, not to forget its highly popular tearooms, it’s a problem which effects the museum’s digital archive in particular.
Elaine Stead, Washburn Heritage Centre’s deputy Chair and secretary said: “We are really frustrated that we have a valuable archive of heritage material with over 6,000 items and cannot make it available to the wider public.
“We also have volunteers willing to give their time to upload items and they cannot all work at the same time because of the poor broadband.
“We can’t actually make best use of the public funds with which the Heritage Centre was built.”
What make it even more galling - in the opinion of the residents and volunteers of this lovely little village - is there already exists a prized BT cabinet 200 metres from the museum, though no one is entirely sure about its contents.
These are not the sort of people to complain easily They are accustomed to doing things for themselves.
To mark the Fewston Assemblage - an astonishing collection of skeletons discovered under the churchyard from hundreds of years ago - Elaine even joined a team of 20 volunteers to hand stitch a huge historic textile.
Complaining has started to become second nature to these hardy volunteers.
Washburn Heritage Centre has made approaches to BT’s Openreach to ask for the centre and houses in the village to be linked up to the cabinet. So far, they say, the response has been almost non-existent.
In the meantime, Fewston is gathering powerful friends in its battle with the authorities for better broadband.
Harrogate Mayor Coun Anne Jones visited staff from the centre recently to see the problems for herself. And volunteers spoke face-to-face with the government’s new chief whip, Julian Smith MP for Skipton and Ripon at the weekend. Elaine Stead said: “Julian was quite receptive and well briefed. We explained that we were not really asking BT Open Reach to do much as the infrastructure was so close already.”
Julian Smith said: “I was pleased to meet a representative from Washburn Heritage Centre today to discuss their broadband situation.
“I was grateful to hear about the excellent work they are doing and I will be making representations to Superfast North Yorkshire on their behalf.”
The stated public aim of SFNY is to ensure every single home and business in all of North Yorkshire enjoys speeds of at least 25Mbps by the end of 2018.
Having trumpeted this only a few years ago, the authorities are now admitting it’s unlikely to be achieved, partly because of the higher costs of reaching rural areas.
But, who knows, Fewston may not be the village left behind by broadband for much longer?