Access to fast broadband is a major issue in West Dorset. The ongoing roll-out of superfast fibre broadband still has many gaps and the mobile internet coverage for people out and about is woefully inadequate. Sara Hudston discovers how Lyme Regis is blazing a trail with a community project that aims to offer high-speed wireless internet across the whole town and beyond.
In 2012, Lyme Regis built the largest community mobile wifi network in the UK to cover the Fossil Festival weekend.
“We just got on and did it. Nobody told us ‘you can’t to that, it will be too complicated’. We really have been the community trailblazers,” says Lisa Quick, project manager for Lyme Regis Development Trust (LRDT) and the woman leading the Digital Lyme venture.
“At the time we didn’t know it was so significant. We accidentally made a name for ourselves – government ministers were Tweeting about it and mentioning us in white papers and it seemed that everyone was talking about this tiny coastal town which had done it for themselves on a wing and a prayer,” she adds.
“The problem was that the network we designed was temporary and when the Fossil Festival finished we switched it off. The whole town went mad. They wanted it back on! And it wasn’t only the locals, visitors were coming into the tourist information centre and asking ‘where’s the wifi?”
The LRDT swiftly organised a public consultation, which found that people wanted the network to be permanent, on all the time and, as Lisa says, “really fast and really free”. How could this be achieved with no real budget and no other existing UK projects elsewhere to turn to for advice?
Fortunately, the noise around the scheme attracted the interest of the Adventure Capital Fund, part of the Social Investment Business Foundation, which gave LRDT some funding for a feasibility study and technical plan.
“The money was for investigation and for writing a report, which we did, but being us, we also used it to actually buy and install a test network as well,” Lisa explains. Airborne Networks from Exeter worked on the technical side and donated much time for free. The result was the Digital Lyme wifi network, which started in 2013 and was tested in bursts through 2014.
This Easter (2015) the project reached another milestone when the network was switched on permanently and it tested a new online payment system. People were charged £2.50 for each 24 hours of use.
“The long-term plan is that it should be truly a community-owned network. People or businesses could buy part of the parent company or even the infrastructure. This might mean buying a node for between £200 and £400 and we would help them build and install it and they would then own part of the asset.”
This year will see further testing of subscription packages and applications for funding, including the new “The Power to Change” fund set up by the Big Lottery Fund. LRDT want to start a three-year development plan that would include further community consultation and see the network spread throughout Lyme Regis (at the moment, it only covers the coastal strip from Monmouth Beach to East Cliff beach). The big aim is to take it down the coast to cover Charmouth and some of its hinterland as well. The sums involved are not as large as might be expected – at this stage Lisa estimates an overall cost of under £200,000.
The potential benefits to Lyme Regis and Charmouth are enormous for locals, businesses and visitors alike. For businesses, superfast broadband is as essential as electricity and water. Visitors expect to be able to log on to their gadgets away from home and get a decent service. Social media, online music, games and basic internet services are part of all our lives. For Digital Lyme to really fly, it needs to increase speeds and bandwidth, especially for uploading files.
The network currently offers download speeds of up to 17mbps and upload speeds of up to 2mbps. That’s good for general leisure browsing but not sufficient for businesses that need to transmit significant amounts of data, as most do these days. LRDT is developing software that shares out the amount of bandwidth available so that the network could achieve download speeds of up to 70mbps and uploads of 20mbps.
“Potentially you could have a superfast community mobile network – now that’s something that hasn’t been done elsewhere,” says Lisa.
- To log-on to the wifi network you need to be in Lyme Regis and near the sea. Look for Digital Lyme on you mobile or laptop and follow the instructions.