Like thousands of families in rural Britain, Steph and Stuart Lefrak have been shelling out £85 a month for a miserably slow broadband connection that gives them only a limited amount of internet usage each month.
When they moved to Drybeck Farm in rural Cumbria last April, they were forced to get this expensive connection — via a satellite dish — because BT said their farm was too remote for normal broadband. No other supplier serviced their area.
Their connection was so limited that Steph, who works from home as an IT adviser, was on the verge of losing her job.
But at the last moment disaster has been averted by the most unlikely of heroes: a farmer’s wife from the Lune Valley up the road in Lancashire.
Internet lifeline: Steph and Stuart Lefrak, with children Emily and Benjamin, were struggling with painfully slow broadband
Christine Conder, 64, who has been awarded an MBE for services to superfast broadband in rural communities, runs the fastest residential network in the world.
The remarkable outfit, called Broadband for the Rural North or B4RN, is a not-for-profit group which delivers speeds 25 times faster than those offered by major telecommunications firms to properties in central London.
Christine’s interest in computers began after going on a course in the Eighties to learn how to use spreadsheets and databases to help with the farm finances.
The old dial-up system in her area was slow, so in 2002 she teamed up with Lancaster University to campaign for better rural broadband. But with little progress by 2009 she’d had enough.
So Christine bought 1km of fibre optic cable and, along with some other volunteers, spent three days digging it into the ground around her farm, 2km up a mountainside, to serve her and her neighbours.
She and ten others then convinced the residents of Wray village and eight neighbouring parishes to raise £300,000, dig a 40-mile trench and lay their own broadband line in 2011.
Now some 4,000 homes across Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire are signed up to it.
The broadband that runs to these homes travels at an astonishing 1,000 Mbps: the national average is 36 Mbps.
These speeds can be achieved because B4RN runs fibre cables directly into the properties it is serving.
Whereas the millions of homes supplied by Openreach, the network division of BT, have a slower copper wire that links up to a nearby cabinet; fibre wires are only used by Openreach to connect the cabinet to the telephone exchange.
Ingenuity: Farmer’s wife Christine Conder, 64, has been awarded an MBE for services to superfast broadband in rural communities
For Steph and Stuart, the new connection is life-changing. The family’s £85 a month once bought them just 60 gigabytes of data, which they had to ration.
Steph uses at least three gigabytes a day working from home, and if her young children watch half an hour of videos, around 20 per cent of their monthly allowance would be gone.
Steph says: ‘Life was stressful because we’d been depending on an incredibly slow internet service — and paying far more than most people in the country for a rubbish service.
‘Before B4RN, BT was the only provider in the area. B4RN is a godsend. Without it, I would be out of a job.’
Over the past nine years, B4RN volunteers and customers have laid 3,000km of fibre optic cable across fields, roads, around trees and under rivers.
Most trenches for the cables have been dug by homeowners signing up to B4RN.
Using equipment borrowed from local farmers, customers who do their own digging can claim £1.50-worth of shares for every metre they plough.
B4RN technicians then lay pipes, blow the fibre through them and splice the wires. Volunteers even dig trenches to boundaries of houses not signed up. That way the infrastructure is in place for future owners.
Customers pay a £150 connection fee, then £30 a month. ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re in a village or on top of a mountain, everyone pays the same,’ says Christine.
‘And if you’re moving or want to cancel, you only have to give a month’s notice. ‘B4RN has brought life back to the Valley. We’ve been able to employ young lads who couldn’t find work and were going to leave the area.
‘Young ones at university who were reluctant to visit their parents because they couldn’t keep in touch with their friends are returning home now.
‘Dozens of retired people have volunteered, or become local champions. They’re now experts in broadband technology and have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.’
B4RN is currently being rolled out in Norfolk.
Just 100 yards on from Drybeck, the Allen family at Beck House hope the B4RN technicians manage to finish the job today. They just about have a BT broadband connection. But with snail-like speeds of 1Mgb, it’s negligible.
Sheep farmer Neil, 41 is out in the yard while his wife Linda, 44, works on a laptop by a roaring fire in the kitchen.
She runs a photography business from home and regularly uploads content onto her website.
The Allens pay £80 a month for their BT service and £22 for an EE internet dongle. But putting 20 pictures online can take Linda up to eight hours.
‘I often leave it running overnight. But the connection drops out so when I come to check in the morning, it’s stalled and I have to start again.
We don’t expect a perfect service but there’s no discount for rural people. BT know we don’t get anywhere near the advertised speed, yet pay the same as in London. It doesn’t seem fair.’
An Openreach spokesman says: ‘Schemes like B4RN should be commended. We’re delivering more than 500 similar community projects to upgrade areas that aren’t covered by existing investment plans.’
A BT spokesman says: ‘BT aims to give customers the best possible speeds their line can achieve’. He said pricing factors including usage limits and security features as well as speed.