Last week saw me in two lovely parts of Britain – the town of Ullapool on the far north west coast of Scotland, and Alston in Cumbria, which boasts that it is the highest market town in England. I was in Scotland for a relaxing family holiday – we had rather dodgy weather while the rest of the UK was basking in sunshine, but we did manage to eat some very good fish and chips, spot a seal in the harbour, and climb a small mountain, Ben Mor Coigach. Well, at least one member of the party got to the top.
Then it was on to Alston for work – our long-planned broadband notspots story. My colleague Jane Wakefield from the BBC website’s technology section came up with this idea earlier this year, and we decided to make it into a TV, radio and the web extravaganza. I wanted this to be a preview of one of the key issues in the upcoming Digital Britain report – just how many people will have to be covered by the government’s promise of a minimum 2mbps broadband service for all. We asked the website samknows.com to come up with a figure and a map, which could provide the news peg for our coverage. We’d sold the idea to TV and radio news outlets, so needed to give them some news as well as a feature.
I chose Alston as the place for our live broadcats for two reasons – it has a long-running community broadband network which is now moving up a stage by laying fibre along country roads, and yet there are quite a few nearby homes where they struggle to get any broadband, let alone 2Mbps.
The figure produced by samknows.com – as many as 3 million homes in the UK unable to get 2Mps – and their map arrived a few days before we set off on our trip. We struggled to make sense of it in TV terms – the researchers at samknows had done a vast amount of work, but the map was slightly confusing. The spots – blue for under 2mbps, red for under 0.5mbps – represented each postcode they had sampled, but as they could not test every postcode in the UK, it meant that in between were vast amounts of white space, where it wasn’t clear to the untutored eye what was happening. Did that represent broadband no-go areas – or places where you could get a fast connection? In fact, all that meant was that we could not say what speeds were like there – we just knew what was happening where there was a dot.
Still we did manage to turn it into a TV graphic, which we took with us to Cumbria. The trip involved myself, Neil Drake, a multi-skilled cameraman, editor and engineer, and Jonathan Sumberg, who is an extraordinarily imaginative producer – also a very stylish dresser, extraordinarily erudite , and a man of the most delicate sensibilities.
We spent Tuesday filming in and around Alston. First, we visited a family twenty miles away, the Shaws, who could only get dial-up and were very frustrated about it. Their comments about the pianful process of spending five minutes to watch Facebook load ended up being the key sequence of our report.
Then we headed off to meet Jules Cadie, who lives in a remote farmhouse but can get broadband, beamed to him via wimax from the Cybermoor community network. Then Daniel Heery from Cybermoor took us off to see a house having a mast installed and his team laying fibre on a country road. That’s where we recorded this video, to run on the website.
Tuesday ended with us in a hotel bedroom, editing our 2’30” television package to run from breakfast the next morning. We got it cut and sent via broadband to London by 2300.
Then at 0500, the alarm went off and we headed to the market square in Alston to begin a long day of live broadcasting for Breakfast, BBC World, the Today programme, 5 Live, and every TV news outlet up until the Ten O Clock News.
We were a lttle nervous because we were trying something pretty tricky – broadcasting live over the Cybermoor community broadband network, rather than using a BBC satellite truck. Daniel Heery from Cybermoor and Hugo Raddon, his technical whizz, had done us proud, putting up a wifi mast on the market square to gather the signal from another mast on a hill and beam it to us. But it was Neil who had to make it work, and he went about it in his usual calm and professional manner.
Using a piece of software called vPoint – more commonly used in war zones – we got on air without a hitch all morning. And as long as I didn’t move too rapidly, the picture looked pretty good on air. Midway through the day, I recorded this little snippet of video showing the cast of thousands involved in this live broadcast:
We spent weeks planning this broadband day, which also included contributions from reporters around the world. You can see some of their work here on an interactive map on the BBC website. And Jane Wakefield, who is now one of Britain’s leading experts on broadband , has put out a whole lot more interesting material, including this piece on a place very near to London where people still can’t get a decent connection.
There is always a danger when you plan something weeks in advance that it gets swept away by some breaking news story. Luckily for us, Wednesday turned out be a quiet news day in the UK, so our story ran all day and made plenty of impact. The notspots story was the most-read item on the BBC website, and the research we commissioned was quoted by a whole range of people, from the Lib Dem MP for Inverness to the Country Landownsers Association. So, all in all, a successful week out of the office. But Jonathan thinks we’ve done the Broadband Britain story now – he has set his sights on something more ambitious. He’s volunteered to go and recce Broadband Bermuda – and has said he’s happy for me to check out Broadband Baghdad. He’ll be right behind me – in the office.