September 28, 2021

Remote and Rural Broadband in the United Kingdom

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch

Craig Corbin:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of The Broadband Bunch, alongside Kaleigh Cox, vice president of business development and content operations with DxTEL. I’m Craig Corbin. Thanks so much for joining us.

It’s a pleasure to introduce the founder of Broadband for Rural Kent, Mr. Tim Higgs. No matter where you look around the world today, broadband pioneers are blazing the trail of connectivity for those who either have no high-speed broadband available or for those who are underserved. Look in the historic county of Kent in Southeastern England. You’ll find just such a pioneer, utilizing various methodologies ranging from high gain 4G and 5G antennas to fixed wireless access and fiber to the premises. Broadband for Rural Kent is making good on the mission of getting rural Kent connected at the speed of light. The man on this mission is using his 15 years of telecommunications industry experience to, as he puts it, solve rural Kent’s broadband non-spots and slow spots. Tim, welcome to The Broadband Bunch.

Tim Higgs:

Hello, and thank you for such a good introduction.

Craig Corbin:

Absolutely. Kaleigh and I have looked forward to this conversation. Before we launch into your current effort, can you give us an overview of your experience?

Rural Broadband Beginnings

Tim Higgs:

Yeah. I got interested in internet connectivity when I was still at school. Part of the reason was that I just couldn’t get decent connectivity. I lived in a rural village. I lived remotely. If I couldn’t go into town, which you couldn’t as a kid, how could you get access to anything? You couldn’t just stroll into a library or anything like that. Getting online was quite important to me. And as broadband came along, I found that I was still stuck on dial-up. And even after Openreach increased broadband range limits, I still was not able to get it. And eventually, they’d done a sort of suck it and see ADSL max, where you could get whatever speed, your line would just about manage. And even then, we only got 1.5 megabits, which was a massive boost from the dial app, but it wasn’t perfect.

My interest in broadband grew; I ended up working part-time for an internet service provider building a fixed wireless access network while I was at college. And then later went on to work for another company that bought out that network later. I’ve worked on and off in the industry in either fixed wireless access or connectivity in motion. Connectivity in motion is 4G on buses, trains, vehicles, ships, anything moving. I have a pretty good history of providing connectivity to remote and challenging locations via various technologies.

Craig Corbin:

Interesting. I’m curious, given that background in the industry, was there a certain point in that time that you began seeing a need for doing something different than what you were doing at that point?

Tim Higgs:

There was always a need for something different because the standard method of delivering broadband was just through the phone lines. That started with dial-up, and then the transition to standard broadband just meant, well, Openreach is just going to use the phone lines again. And if the phone line wasn’t good enough, you were stuck with no other alternative. And fixed wireless was one of the game changers for that. It meant that another company could come in and provide a solution where Openreach’s network just doesn’t perform, can’t do it, and would need significant, expensive upgrades to do. And then mobile technologies improved, so 3G and eventually 4G changed how things were possible because 3G and then 4G were capable of more than some phone lines were.

Kaleigh Cox:

And I know that you said, Tim, another pivotal moment for you was, of course, when COVID-19 hit, and so many of our daily activities went online, and where you grew up still didn’t have the connectivity it needed. And your mom reached out to you and said, “We need better internet,” knowing that you worked in the industry. Can you tell us a bit of that and your response to her?

Tim Higgs:

Yeah. I was living and working away from home at the time. I was living in Banbury, working for a company up there and I was stuck working from home, thinking, hang on a minute, why am I working from home? I can’t go and see family, and my only communication with family is doing Zooms, and Zooms don’t work because she was struggling with just that. And she had moved into this property; I think it was eight years ago now. And when she was purchasing it, I said to her, “You know you’re two kilometers away from the cabinet. You’re never going to get any improvement in broadband unless someone else does something about it.” I didn’t think at the time that it was going to be me. But she was having problems with her internet connectivity. It just wasn’t quick enough for me to see her clearly on Zoom. The download of about five meg was okay, but the upload was not enough to have a video.

And a couple of her neighbors had also been having problems.  One became interested in finding a solution because he was trying to work from home and his wife.  Let’s do something about it because Openreach isn’t doing anything about it. It’s just not happening. I’ve been trying to get something to happen for probably five or six years, sort of not straight at away when she moved here but a few years after, and it just wasn’t going to happen. And I just took steps to do something myself.

Hybrid Broadband Networks

Craig Corbin:

It’s interesting, Tim, when we look at the fact that you’ve used a combination of approaches to the challenge of getting connectivity to the folks there in rural Kent and obviously just as you have experienced and other guys that are the ones I call the pioneers, which roll up their sleeves, get in the trenches. The fixed wireless is a beautiful way to begin that process, but you’ve gone through a transition now to beginning to use fiber to the premise. And obviously, that is a huge difference-maker for the customers being served. Share with us if you would, the process of that transition and how that came about, and what it’s like now.

Tim Higgs:

I started this network as a fixed wireless network, but it was backhauled with an unlimited 4G SIM. And that was intended to be very temporary because the plan was always to get a fiber connection in and then expand the wireless network out. But as I started to realize, if I didn’t start providing fiber to the premises, I was at risk of someone else overbuilding what I’m doing. Then I started to plan a fiber network and instead of just having the main fiber uplink, so the leased line connection coming in to say a cabinet that was just going to feed a wireless network. I had it coming into a cabinet that was suitable for providing fiber to the premises. I’ve got just the same as Openreach or anyone else would have. I’ve got a green cabinet next to the road to provide my fiber service.

And from that, I’ve been trenching so far, it’s through our own ground and we’ll be mostly around the backs of houses through farmland using wayleaves and I’ll be using Section 50s for road crossings in the early, early starts. And eventually, powers will be used for the wider scheme. I’m building much in a similar way to Broadband for Rural North, started building it myself, doing it myself with a bit of help, and just getting the job done as and when I can, as quickly as I can. But the transition here is I’ve built a wireless network and customers that I had connected to the wireless network I’ve already moved onto the fiber. One of those was moved on, I think it was seven, maybe eight months from when I connected them on wireless. It’s a quick transition to go from having, they’d gone from five meg to wireless having 60 meg, to then when the leased line went live over the wireless network, they were getting 220 meg. And then once I connected them to fiber, they’ve now got 900 meg.

Craig Corbin:

You made mention, and again, that is a very rapid transition compared to many providers, but you made mention just a moment ago about doing a lot of the work yourself. That might be an understatement based on what Kaleigh and I have learned. I want to know a little bit more about that. I referred to you as one of the pioneers. Here in the States, the beginnings of the cable industry, we called them cable cowboys, the guys that were out there stringing cable themselves. You literally are in the trenches and doing the work. What has that been like for you?

Tim Higgs:

I am literally doing everything. I am the man with a van and ladders. I’ve borrowed a trencher off a farmer, a local farmer. In the same village, surprisingly had one. I’ve borrowed a trencher and just sort of got on with it. It’s slow progress because it’s me and what help I can get now, but I’ve got to get started somewhere. And this is how you get it done.

Craig Corbin:

That is awesome because that’s when you know that you’re truly invested in a project. You’ve had the passion from day one. You’ve also had the willingness to invest the blood, sweat, and tears in the process. Hats off to you on that. I’m curious, what kind of feedback do you get when you talk to people about your passion for growing this effort? What kind of feedback do you get?

Tim Higgs:

Interestingly, it has been quite a struggle. Being so early in the game and relatively small plans to connect sparsely spread properties, it has been quite challenging. But I am getting the feeling that I’m starting to get traction and soon could be at a point where I could start to do less of the digging and everything else myself and start to outsource some of that or even employ people to do it. Things could rapidly change.

Kaleigh Cox:

I know that in addition to doing the physical work, the digging, laying fiber, that kind of thing, you’re also funding the project right now on your own. And something that is interesting to me is how the funding works there versus here in the United States. Would you just tell us a little bit about that and how that’s working?

Tim Higgs:

The idea was the fixed wireless network was self-funding in that I would fund the build and eventually the subscriptions would pay the cost of build and eventually some profit. The fixed wireless network wasn’t originally designed to be a large network. And then I started looking at the process of going to fiber and therefore being able to claim the funding. The difficult situation in the UK is how that funding works because it builds first, claims a voucher that hopefully, you can still claim by the time you are claiming it. Of course, you’ve still got to go through a whole process of putting in your proposal and getting that accepted. And then, you’ve got usually 12 months to build the network and then you can claim your vouchers, but you’ve got to put up all that cost, all that financial front before you can even start claiming the vouchers and the vouchers aren’t guaranteed.

It’s an interesting and crazy thing. It’s not, here’s the money, go build, and hopefully, you build it and everyone’s happy or not.

At least maybe it means that the money is safer in terms of its only getting given to a company that has built the network that’s proven they’ve connected a customer. But it’s also very, very difficult for startup companies to get access to. They could be doing the job quicker in places, quicker than a large company would be doing in more rural places, or difficult to reach places or places is that just need a different solution, perhaps fiber isn’t the solution. Perhaps that’s just going to be too complicated, too expensive. Whereas a company like mine, I can look at wireless or I can go, well, 4G will do. It’s going to take you from your one meg on ADSL to 50, 60 meg plus, which is good enough for now. And if I’ve got you as a customer, then I can work out how I get something better in the future.

Broadband Funding in the UK

Craig Corbin:

Tim, just a quick follow-up to Kaleigh’s question about funding. What you just described to me would seem to be much more challenging, especially for startup operations such as Broadband for Rural Kent, compared to what many would say is just an immense amount of upfront funding here in the States for similar type projects. From your perspective, is there any sign that that approach in the UK will change soon? Or is that what you’re going to be dealing with going forward?

Tim Higgs:

I believe that’s what I, as a small company, am going to be dealing with going forwards. I think things are changing slightly in terms of if there’s going to be a procurement process instead where some areas will be taken out of the voucher scheme and put towards a procurement process where companies will bid. But those companies that can bid will only be large companies. You’re talking CityFibre and Openreach and Virgin Media. You’re not talking little old me from Kent.

Kaleigh Cox:

Something that’s interesting is there’s a lot of people getting into the broadband business in the United States, partially because of what Craig said, that there’s a lot of funding available. What’s unique about you, in addition to having to kind of carry the financial risk on your own until you can hopefully claim a voucher, you didn’t have your own company when COVID hit and when your mom came to you. Tell us a little bit about what you were doing at the time and how you ended up doing this instead.

Tim Higgs:

Yeah. I was working for a distributor at the time that sells, amongst other things, kits for wireless internet service providers, companies that provide Wi-Fi. 4G antennas that I use, I still buy the kit from them today. That’s what I was doing. And I was doing mainly technical support and pre-sales support and sometimes network design things and all sorts of other bits I got involved with.

Kaleigh Cox:

And then COVID hit, and you started talking to your mom, and what happened next?

Tim Higgs:

When COVID hit, I was stuck inside because it was working from home. Wasn’t meant to be going out. This was sort of the first month of COVID and I was thinking, well okay, can I do something else with my time? Can I help fix a problem that has been ongoing for a while but now people are realizing our internet isn’t good enough? We’ve been complaining about it for years but maybe something needs to be done. The demand was now there. I had a key tick box that had been ticked to set in motion this company. And I started looking at it, it was a little project, it was break-even. And it was break-even maybe make me a little profit, just sort out a fixed wireless network for 50 something properties, maybe 70, depending on where I extended the coverage to. It was never going to be anything big. And then as I looked at it more and more, it grew from that.

Community Broadband Networks

Kaleigh Cox:

Sure. And tell me about, you’ve had a unique experience where the first people you were hooking up with were your mom and her neighbors. Tell us about some of the feedback you got. I know some of your customers even have your cellphone number and text you. Tell me about some of the maybe positive feedback you got in the wake of setting them up.

Tim Higgs:

Yeah. Obviously, as a small provider, I’ve got customers that have my number. Obviously, they know me. They’ve got my mobile number, so they’ve got at me on WhatsApp. They’ve got me on Facebook. I don’t get inundated by messages. That’s an exaggeration. But I do get people messaging me at all sorts of random times but that’s what it is with a small company. I had someone the other day just send me a message on Facebook, and they were someone I was talking to about nine months ago when they moved house and they were questioning whether they should connect with what I’m offering because they’d seen my posts on Facebook or whether they should just get normal Sky, BT, whatever they went within the end. I think they went with Sky because they contacted me when Sky’s been having loads of issues recently. They’re now getting installed next week as a fixed wireless customer.

It’s good to have this ability to be contacted sometimes. My customers know that they can reach me. I had a customer the other day that had been having issues with the Wi-Fi and a weird issue. That was one of those that I was like, well okay, I need to know when it’s happening and I need to go out there when it’s happening because unless I can prove it myself, I don’t really know what is happening. They messaged me one Saturday afternoon and I’d shot out there straight away. Within half an hour I was there having a look, testing on my phone going, “Yeah, it’s absolutely fine.” He was testing on his phone going. “Yeah, I’m getting one meg.” “Okay, yeah but I’m getting 60, 70 meg so what’s up?”

And we tested on several different devices, and it just consistently sorted of, not consistently but randomly, it was slow on some devices. Okay, so I’ve got another router in the van. I’ll plug that in and see what that’s like. Every single B test was 70 meg plus. No variation whatsoever. Okay, so there’s something wrong with that router. If I hadn’t shut out there when it was happening, I probably would’ve never known.

Kaleigh Cox:

There’s nothing like the customer service from a small, independently owned provider.

Importance of Customer Experience in Broadband

Tim Higgs:

Yeah, there’s nothing like customer service from a small independent provider. The other funny one, I don’t know if I should really talk about it, but the other funny one I had was.

One of my first four fiber customers, got a new cat the other week and the cat decided to eat the fiber cable. They went offline and they messaged me about 2:00 at night. Of course, I didn’t see the message at 2:00 at night. I saw the message at about 4:00 when I randomly woke up and saw it. But luckily this was a customer that they were part of my fixed wireless network, and the kit is still there. I hadn’t removed it, so okay, fine. Just switch the wireless link back on. Job done. Your internet is restored. I then fixed the fiber. Well, I replaced the fiber cable that had been chewed and tidied up the install. They had a router that was sitting on the TV stand with a fiber cable between the wall-mounted fiber patch point. And instead, now it’s a short fiber patch cable straight from a wall-mounted ONU instead. That’s been tidied up. It’s not as attractive to a cat anymore.

Craig Corbin:

Less enticing.

Tim Higgs:

Yeah. Yeah. Dangling a little white cable that’s three-mil thick is very interesting to a cat but a very short patch cable, a bit thicker and out the way is luckily not so interesting.

Yeah, these things happen, and you learn from it and shouldn’t happen again. I messaged him the other day and asked how he was getting on. He was like, “The cats not interested in behind the TV anymore now that you’ve sorted out all the wires.” I’m like, “Brilliant. That’s all I need to know.”

Craig Corbin:

That is awesome. Tim, a quick file up to Kaleigh’s question. Obviously, this is a tremendous passion for you, what you’ve invested. Talk about your thoughts from the fact that this provides not only professional satisfaction but I’m sure personal satisfaction with what you are accomplishing.

Tim Higgs:

Yeah. There is some real personal satisfaction here because I am providing people with something that personally I struggled with in the past. I struggled when I was quite young to get a decent internet connection at my dad’s and now at my mom’s, although that’s solved at my mom’s. And then helping people go from having next to no megabits, to quite often 30 plus, often 60 plus. It’s life-changing for them. I had a customer that I installed the other day, they went from four megabits on ADSL, having to have two phone lines so that both people could work in the house at the same time. They would use one line for one person or one line for the other person so that they could both Zoom or whatever, have meetings or whatever they needed to do. Now they don’t need that because they’ve got one decent connection that’s giving them 70 odd meg.

It is life-changing and straight away that day, he got excited when he got the invoice, and he paid the invoice twice by mistake. That’s a first. I’ll click refund on one of the payments.

Craig Corbin:

You know they appreciate it if they pay you twice.

Tim Higgs:

Yeah. And he recommended it to his neighbor and his neighbor ordered it the same day. And they are going to be installed on Tuesday. It’s all a good thing now.

Craig Corbin:

That’s awesome. That is so great. And Tim, Kaleigh and I are always interested to know the stories of the guests that we have on The Broadband Bunch. And we have it on good authority that your expertise goes well beyond just the technological experience that you have. Heard that you might be a qualified drone pilot. Any truth to that?

Tim Higgs:

There is truth to that. I did have in the UK, it’s called permission for commercial operations, PFCO, they might have changed the name again. But you must have a license to charge for drone photography or even drone surveys of any kind commercially. Obviously, you can fly a drone without, I think that’s changed now, I think you must have a registration, but you don’t need a license the same. I have permission for commercial operation. I filmed a friend’s wedding and a few other random bits and bobs. I filmed a couple of weddings. And just sort of few other things. I’ve done 3D mapping as well, which I’m thinking I need to do again because I want to 3D map where I’ve just dug a trench. So, I’ve got the exact GPS record of where that trench is.

The thing that I really liked about drone photography is it was being able to take photos from a perspective that you wouldn’t normally see. We’ve all got quite used to Google Earth and things like that, being able to look at things from above but the whole photography side and videography side of it really interested me because it was an angle you just couldn’t normally see and when you are flying one, it’s pretty much like you’re flying yourself. You can really get into it and enjoy it.

Craig Corbin:

And obviously, there are going to be some complimentary uses about Broadband for Rural Kent that you can tie that into. That is very interesting. As time winds down here with our visit, we always like to pose a couple of closing questions. One is what we refer to as the back to the future question, picture yourself hopping into the DeLorean and zipping back to a certain point in your career. Is there anything that you would tell yourself? What would you whisper in your ear that would change the trajectory of what doing now with Broadband for Rural Kent?

Tim Higgs:

Yeah. I think I would tell myself to start my own business a lot earlier. I think if I could have got into the even just the wireless internet provider side of things earlier and have started making that transition to fiber perhaps three, four, maybe five years ago, I would be well ahead of the game now. If I could go back, that’s what I would do. If I could take a bunch of money with me.

Craig Corbin:

There you go. Now you’re talking.

Tim Higgs:

So that I can really be kickstarted then that would be perfect. But if you ever find someone with a DeLorean that works, do let me know. I know there’s a replica somewhere nearby, someone in Kent has one, I think.

Craig Corbin:

Excellent.

Tim Higgs:

But unfortunately, I don’t think it works.

Craig Corbin:

Well, maybe we can find a spare flux capacitor and do a little work on that.

Tim Higgs:

I can find and capacitors, but I don’t know about the flux.

Craig Corbin:

Final question, the flip side of looking back, looking forward. We call it the crystal ball. What do you foresee for Broadband for Rural Kent in the next five, 10 years?

Tim Higgs:

I really hope that Broadband for Rural Kent is going to grow significantly. I really hope that we can connect the most rural places, premises, businesses that will not be connected by someone else. And then I think the future is getting more and more connected but that connectivity and who provides it is going to become a gray line because everyone just wants Wi-Fi. People just talk about Wi-Fi. They don’t care who it’s coming from really. And they don’t even know sometimes. Most people don’t even know the difference between 4G and Wi-Fi now. This whole merging and sort of one provider having access across multiple networks and being able to transition between 4G and Wi-Fi and a fixed wireless connection and your fiber when you’re at home, just everything merging into one is I think how we’re going to go.

Craig Corbin:

Excellent. Excellent. Tim, thank you so much for the time.

Tim Higgs:

Thank you.

Craig Corbin:

Kaleigh, this has been a great visit as we knew it would be.

Craig Corbin:

Absolutely. And on behalf of Tim and Kaleigh, I’m Craig. Thanks for letting us be a part of your day. We’ll see you next time right here on The Broadband Bunch. So long, everyone.

Tim Higgs:

Thank you.

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