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Underriver, the village near Sevenoaks with UK's fastest broadband, set to transform rural business

By Chris Price

The village of Underriver, near Sevenoaks, has a lot of reasons to thank Mike Clyne.

A businessman with an HR consultancy, he was tired of the snail-pace internet connection he had at his home back in 2012.

He decided to do something about it and contacted Gigaclear, a rural broadband specialist that had just installed fibre cables in a village in Oxfordshire.

Underriver village hall has broadband speeds of more than 1 gbps

Underriver village hall has broadband speeds of more than 1 gbps

He formed a rural broadband group to gain support of other villagers and today, Underriver has download speeds of 1gbps (gigabits per second), 30 times faster than the UK average and the fastest in the country.

“My home is my office and before we had ultrafast broadband I could just about get stuff done,” said Mr Clyne, who runs FeMan Consulting.

“There would be times when the signal was poor and if you were working after school time everything slowed down.

“I couldn’t effectively do online backup or cloud computing. It restricted the range of things I could do.

FeMan Consulting boss Mike Clyne

FeMan Consulting boss Mike Clyne

“Now it is like getting off a pedal bike and into a Formula One car. The network is no longer a limitation and the capacity is going to outlive me.

“We are in a nice semi-rural village on the outskirts of Sevenoaks and yet we have world-class broadband.

“It means I have more time to do work – my company is more efficient and this area is open for business.”

With villagers able to download a film in seven seconds, the installation of the high-speed broadband has been warmly received, despite weeks of disruption to roads while cables were installed.

It has had a radical impact on business, too, especially at sites like Great Hollanden Business Centre, which has about 20 tenants.

“Usually, there is pretty much nothing in most rural areas,” said Gigaclear sales and marketing manager Joe Frost.

“We are bringing a transformational effect because we build broadband using fibre, not copper, which gives us speeds of up to 5gbps. The national average is 22mbps [megabits per second].

“It’s an off-the-scale difference. They have broadband you could get in a city centre.”

Getting this kind of infrastructure is not easy. Gigaclear has spent £2 million over three years in Underriver, installing fibre connections at every house it has dug past at its own expense, regardless of whether a property has signed up to receive superfast broadband.

Its backers, Prudential and Woodford Investment Management, views installing superfast broadband as a long-term investment, with the cables set to be in the ground for 50 years.

Underriver, near Sevenoaks, has the fastest broadband in the UK

Underriver, near Sevenoaks, has the fastest broadband in the UK

However, it will only invest in areas it thinks it will get a return.

“The reason there are not a lot of companies doing this is it’s pretty hard work,” said Mr Frost. “In rural areas, there are not a lot of pavements to put in the cables.

“Digging up the road is hugely expensive and disruptive. However, long term there is a lot to gain.”

“It’s an off-the-scale difference. They have broadband you could get in a city centre...” - Joe Frost, Gigaclear

Gigaclear hopes it can expand further into the county later this year, with its network already being rolled out in Shipbourne, Plaxtol and Hadlow.

It hopes to fill in the gaps of Kent County Council’s own superfast broadband programme for rural areas, which is being delivered by BT.

The scheme has rolled out broadband of at least 24mbps to more than 120,000 properties across Kent, although it says in many areas the speeds are much faster.

“We don’t want to invest private money where state aid has been spent with BT,” said Mr Frost.

By September 2018, Kent County Council’s programme will have installed superfast broadband to 95.7% of premises in the county, leaving many homes in hard-to-reach areas still without a connection.

“We welcome any market-led investment that could further improve the connectivity of homes and businesses across Kent,” said Cllr Mark Dance, the council’s economic development chief.

Cllr Mark Dance

Cllr Mark Dance

“Our funding is targeted at areas where there are no plans by any operator to provide superfast funding under their own, privately-funded investment programmes.

“We have a good dialogue with Gigaclear and have already descoped areas from our existing broadband rollout where they have informed us that they are now prepared to invest.”

The advice is clear from Underriver to villages and businesses with slow connections.

“Communities need to do this,” said Mr Clyne. “Like any infrastructure project, there are ups and downs. You have bits that are difficult, but in the end it is all worthwhile.

“I think even though many villagers may not have been desperate for it, they realised that as a community it is something positive.

“This was a community effort with private money.”

Underriver, near Sevenoaks, has the fastest broadband in the UK

Underriver, near Sevenoaks, has the fastest broadband in the UK

Many connectivity providers will only install in remote areas when the customer is a large business or a group of several businesses, where strong returns are guaranteed.

Custodian Data Centre, based in Vinters Park, Maidstone, focuses more on businesses rather than homes.

“You would be surprised how many sizeable businesses struggle with connectivity,” said sales and marketing manager Leonard Kay.

Rather than installing broadband, the firm uses existing cable infrastructure to give access to internet through its data centre or to create direct connections between businesses.

The firm supplies internet to business hubs like the Business Terrace in Maidstone and the Medway Innovation Centre in Chatham.

Mr Kay said: “Connectivity is key for everything and we have tons of connectivity here. We put in a big line to a centre and then they can break it out individually.”

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