The village hall in Bowerchalke is an unlikely setting for a mobile technology revolution. Yet local residents, surrounded by crocheted goods and local jams, have spent three years forging a mobile phone network to bridge their own “digital divide”.
The experimental Ch4lke Mobile, which runs over just five masts, can connect homes to a network capable of delivering broadband-like speeds, in an area that had been left behind by the digital revolution.
The fledgling network has just secured part of a £2.25m government grant to fill in England’s largest “not-spot” — an area with no mobile signal — and could offer a solution to other pockets in the country blighted by a lack of coverage.
The village sits in the picturesque Chalke Valley in Wiltshire, little more than 10 miles south of Stonehenge. It is known for its high quality watercress and a number of celebrity residents, including film director Guy Ritchie and television presenter James May.
But perhaps more fortunately for its inhabitants, the village also boasts a small group of residents with technology backgrounds.
Ed Gairdner, who used to work with tech start-ups in Silicon Valley, moved to the Chalke Valley from Hampshire four years ago and became frustrated at the paucity of coverage. “We looked at the coverage maps in Carphone Warehouse before buying phones. We tried to do our due diligence — but there is no coverage here,” he said.
According to tests performed by network measurement company GWS signals are weak to non-existent in the valley. There is even a divide within the “digital divide” as some residents with houses high on the downs get a signal while others have no coverage at all. “It became a non-discussion subject in the pub as it would start too many arguments,” said James Body, chair of the parish council.
Mr Body was unusually well placed when villagers began to complain to him about the lack of coverage. As a former officer in the British army’s Royal Signals, he spent a career in the military building networks and then went on to work in telecoms in the private sector.
Bowerchalke lies just a few miles west of the cathedral city of Salisbury, which now has one of the fastest broadband networks in the country. But the steep, narrow Chalke Valley has cut it off from the wireless revolution after an earlier government project failed to deliver five large mobile towers.
Despite few wanting the giant metallic structures, locals were angry at having no coverage. For Sue Lee, who runs a B&B next to the village hall, the lack of connectivity has cost her business.
She describes various visitors abruptly leaving without paying after finding there was no mobile reception. She decided to harangue Mr Body. “Isn’t there anything we can do? It is ridiculous,” she recalled asking him.
Since then, Mr Body has spent three years working with the community to develop a test network that operates off small antennas attached to the chimneys of thatched cottages.
Inspired by an earlier initiative to set up a rural broadband network in Lancashire in north-west England called B4rn, the new mobile network relies on the willingness of the community to solve the problem themselves rather than wait for the government or the industry to sort it out.
This also helps to lower costs as there is no rental or paperwork. The small base stations, that house the antennas, are also less of an eyesore than a mobile tower. The company compares its array of small cells to fairy lights reaching “every nook and cranny” of the valley.
The government funding for Ch4lke will allow the network to move from the experimental phase — where it is still encountering gremlins such as the text messages it occasionally spits out welcoming people to Jersey — to a fully fledged system capable of delivering 5G speeds.
The small base stations are put up by the local TV installer: Mr Body’s house and the village hall already have one and with the funding in place the aim is to build the network out with about 50 across the valley.
The tiny network is pioneering with its use of a so-called neutral host network, which taps into unused spectrum — the frequencies that carry mobile signals — to interconnect with the large UK participants — Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three.
Ch4lke Mobile, which is community owned, is using British-made hardware and software from a small Cambridge company called CellXica. The company is also working with O2 on a small trial at a Surrey train station but believes the ingenuity of the rural solution shows that British technology can play a bigger role in a UK market set to phase out radio equipment from China’s Huawei, the largest supplier.
Ch4lke could offer a solution for other communities affected by not-spots in areas that the government-backed Shared Rural Network programme, launched earlier this year to fill in most of the rural areas with poor coverage, won’t reach. “I’d love to have our radios in every not spot in the country now we have proved this is working,” said Ant Timpson of CellXica.
However, getting the large telecoms on-side remains a key part of the process. The government backing for this scheme will help its cause. For John Glen, the local MP, the initiative is an example of a community banding together and finding a solution to a debilitating problem where the government and industry has failed.
“You need to think laterally. You can’t conceive of this in Whitehall,” he said, sitting in the village hall. “This will be transformative for social cohesion. Everyone needs to benefit, from the B&B owner to the tech entrepreneur to the 85-year-old,” he said.
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