How a DIY broadband project has had a profound economic and social impact on the most isolated of the North York Moors

It wasn't too long ago that living in the scenic North York Moors meant sacrificing regular internet access and even mobile phone coverage.

Farndale was the first of the valleys to get its own private broadband network

Yet a pioneering broadband network set by a group of disgruntled residents over a decade ago has now transformed the area into a beacon of connectivity that is increasingly attractive to digital natives - and which has come to the fore during the confinements of lockdown.

Moorsweb began back in 2006, when electrical engineer Barry Sunley, who lives in Farndale, became fed up of the painfully slow dial-up internet that lagged far behind the service available in urban areas.

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He set up a company, originally called Farndale Free Range Ltd, to run a local network that would bring wireless broadband to remote areas such as Bransdale, Farndale and Rosedale, originally using satellite links.

Areas such as Rosedale Abbey already have ultrafast 100mbps speeds

By the time he retired in 2017, it had around 300 subscribers and offered a wireless connection to the public internet via a fibre gateway. Customers can get superfast speeds of up to 30mbps, comparable with those available in most towns and cities, at an affordable rate.

Barry's baton was passed to Martyn and Julie Boswell, whose business, Signa Technologies Ltd, has now operated Moorsweb for the past four years. They have increased the customer base to around 700 households and businesses, and are currently rolling out ultrafast 100mbps connections. A committee of local volunteers have retained their involvement, and there is now coverage in all of the northern dales and some fringe areas.

The isolated valleys of Baysdale, Kildale and Lonsdale, where residents struggled to even receive a mobile signal, have recently been added to the network and their speeds upgraded from the basic packages offered by mainstream providers.

The past year has seen the issue of connectivity in rural areas become ever more pertinent, as North York Moors residents work and study from home in large numbers for the first time. Committee member Bernard Glass is adamant that fast broadband has enabled these remote communities to survive and thrive, and that its role in attracting young families to the area cannot be overstated.

"People have moved here who simply couldn't have done before - they have teenagers who want to be on social media, younger children watching things online. They can have a normal life here as they would have in a town or city. You rarely see an empty house around here now - they sell quickly," said Bernard, whose own home in Rosedale Abbey receives its connection via the gateway at The Lion Inn pub in nearby Blakey Ridge.

"The primary school in Rosedale Abbey's roll went down to about seven pupils at one point, and it has more than doubled now, and I think the broadband speeds have been a major reason for that.

"To say we are now getting speeds of 100mbps - not many areas of the country have those. We will have a better connection than the vast majority of the population."

Julie says that she is regularly contacted by people looking to move to the North York Moors who plan to work remotely, and 'would simply not consider' relocation without the assurance of superfast connections.

"In the Moors, we are actually ahead of the game."

The economic impact of Moorsweb is laudable - small businesses, such as Rosedale Abbey-based Lumisphere, which makes lighting products for cruise ships, bridges and the Blackpool Illuminations, have found it key to their viability. Many of the holiday homes in the area have Moors Web service, and their owners find that connectivity is essential in persuading tourists to book stays in remote villages.

"We've done quite a few caravan parks now, so guests have the option of staying in and watching Netflix if the weather is bad, and still having a good holiday," adds Julie.

Yet the social consquences of having excellent digital communications, particularly during a pandemic, have been arguably more significant.

"We have had a lot of NHS workers benefit from it - one GP sent us a lovely email thanking us for connecting her surgery, as she is now still able to send prescriptions virtually. We did the installation in just two days, as it was vital that she had really good broadband.

"Another thing we've been able to do is install CCTV systems for farmers, who can monitor their livestock from home and worry less about security. It means they can relax more during lambing or calving time, they can watch a live stream on their phone without having to go out in the middle of the night."

Village halls have been given free access to the network so that they can stream virtual activities such as fitness classes and keep up morale in their communities, and Moorswet also provide Wifi for agricultural shows in the summer months.

Another client is the Camphill Movement co-operative community at Botton, a village where adults with disabilities live together and run businesses such as a shop and bakery.

"My wife has been having virtual consultations with her GP, and my daughter and her husband spent part of lockdown working from here last year, having video calls all day. It's been really useful for supermarket deliveries - if the slots become available at midnight, you can guarantee you'll be able to get online at that time and reserve one," adds Bernard.

Bernard also points out that campaigns to secure better rural broadband often focus on the advantages of fibre connections, when in areas such as the North York Moors, where there would be long distances between exchanges and the risk of degradation to the cables, a wireless network is more appropriate.

"It's ideal for communities where the houses are dispersed and spread wide apart. There has been a big emphasis on fibre, and people think they want fibre, but wireless goes straight into the premises and it works in locations like ours, with big open valleys. It's not the right topography for fibre."

Julie is aware that Yorkshire's connectivity deficit spreads far beyond the North York Moors, and Signa may expand their reach in future, though their focus remains on bringing the network to the remaining 'not spots' in and around the National Park.

"I would say, if you are a group of people living in an area with poor coverage, it could be easier than you think to set something up and we can point you in the right direction. Once people rally together, it makes it feasible for us to put the infrastructure in,"

As Bernard concludes; "Moors Web has enabled us to live in a pleasant, modern world, and lockdown has really emphasised that. We are extraordinarily grateful to Martyn and Julie for taking it on from Barry and developing it."