For those living beyond the reach of cable and ADSL, broadband may seem like a pipe dream. But there are alternatives.
Following what might kindly be called a patchy start, the availability of broadband internet access in the UK is now fairly encouraging.
As of last December, according to Oftel, 90 per cent of households and businesses have access to ADSL, 45 per cent to cable broadband, and more than 3m subscribers have availed themselves of one or the other option.
However, even the most optimistic forecasts conclude that around 10 per cent of the population will be left without any means to connect to a traditional broadband service, possibly permanently. BT has no plans to provide ADSL in more than 600 of the smallest exchanges and the cable companies show no enthusiasm for digging up fresh streets.
So is the outlook for those left stranded entirely hopeless? Not at all. The position is certainly complicated, with major operators, bit-part players, a clutch of quangos and an all-new set of jargon to contend with.
However, there are some practical alternatives to ADSL and cable out there. Here, we take the opportunity to survey the scene and report back to you.
The final frontier
The most obvious alternative technology to consider is satellite. So long as you have a clear view of the southern sky and are prepared (and allowed - planning permission may be required) to have a satellite dish mounted on your home, you should be able to tap into a satellite broadband service.
There are two variations on this theme. The first is a one-way-only deal that provides a high-speed downloads but means you must keep a dial-up internet account for uploads. For example, when you enter a website address in your browser, your computer sends a request for the web page to your ISP through a modem and the telephone line.
This request is then relayed to the satellite, which beams the page directly to your dish. This interstellar toing and froing results in a brief time-lag. You must also remember to factor in the cost of the upload connection - £15 or so per month for a freephone ISP account.
The alternative is a two-way satellite service where your computer communicates directly with the satellite in both directions. There is still a slight delay - the information has to travel to or from space, which takes about a quarter of a second each way. But although not astronomical, the prices are better suited to businesses than consumers.
Next up is wireless technology. This usually involves a single high-bandwidth internet connection delivered to a small community by a 'backhaul' provider.
A backhaul connection may be a line to BT's national network, a cable connection or even a satellite link. What matters is that it has enough bandwidth to supply you and your neighbours. The connection is then converted to a wireless radio signal and transmitted to the district at large as a wireless network. Individual households and businesses can tap into the signal with their own Wi-Fi equipment.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to run a wireless network at the community level. In a point-to-multipoint setup, each recipient's home must be able to see the source radio transmitter. This is fine where the lay of the land is relatively flat and the transmitter can be seen from just about anywhere.
Unfortunately, villages tend to be perched higgledy-piggledy on hills and dales. The alternative is a 'mesh' or multi-hop arrangement, where strategically-placed subscribers act as 'nodes'. A node both receives the wireless signal and relays it to the next node in the network.
With enough nodes, it is possible to route the wireless signal around the most challenging landscapes and provide coverage to an entire community.
From the end user's point of view, what matters most is that wireless community networks can be made to work, and work well. However, there are limiting factors, including interference, a loss of signal strength (and bandwidth) over distance and the diminishing effect of too many hops from node to node.
BT has been involved with wireless networking before without much success a pilot mesh scheme was abandoned - but fresh technical point-to-multipoint trials are afoot in areas of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that remain untouched by ADSL.
Cable operator NTL is also experimenting with wireless but only as a fill-in technology for properties that lie within its general area of coverage but for one reason or another, cannot get a cable connection direct to their home.
Socket to them
Finally, how about broadband through your electricity supply? It sounds far-fetched but one enterprising power company, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), has already run successful technical trials in Crieff and Campbeltown. Commercial trials with fee-paying customers are now underway in Stonehaven and Winchester.
The technology, which is sold under the name Powerline, couldn't be simpler at the point of use - just plug a modem into any standard wall power socket in your home and hook it up to a computer for instant internet access at broadband speeds.
There is no technical reason why this or similar technologies could not be made available across the country. However, boosters must be installed to reach households further than 10km from a power substation, which inevitably adds extra expense and potentially limits the scope for extending a service to far-flung areas.
SSE spokesman Denis Kerby explains current plans: "We're at the very early stages of something that could be quite big but it will be at least six months to a year before we can assess the results of the current trials.
"Thereafter we may see a gradual roll-out to residential communities in the two areas where we supply electricity and own the power lines, namely parts of the north of Scotland and southern England. We will also look at the possibility of subsidising a broadband service for customers of our energy service."
The importance of commercial viability is a recurring and not unexpected theme when you speak to companies involved in supplying alternative internet access.
Nobody is about to throw themselves into a financial black hole on the off chance that a rural community will clamour for souped-up internet access the moment it is made available. This point is acknowledged by the Countryside Agency in its recent report, Broadband in rural areas.
"Other than major national telecommunications operators like BT, NTL and Telewest, activity to provide broadband service can best be described as piecemeal. As a consequence, it is up to communities to encourage supply of broadband in their locality."
In other words, prove to ISPs that there are enough people in your area willing to pay for broadband. So what in practice can you do? There are three possibilities.
First, lobby BT to upgrade your local telephone exchange for ADSL. Even if the trigger level - the number of people that have to express an interest in ADSL for the service to be provided - is set unrealistically high, a mere 150 registrations guarantees an automatic review.
Second, if you can persuade another ISP that sufficient people are prepared to pay for broadband, it may be prepared to install its own equipment in BT's exchange and provide an independent ADSL service.
This is known as 'unbundling the local loop', which refers to the looped network that runs from a BT exchange to buildings nearby. Easynet and Pipemedia are leading players here.
Sometimes, no matter how loudly you and your neighbours shout for broadband, companies turn a deaf ear. Rather than sulk down their plodding dial-up connections, some communities have cut out the middle men and set up their own community broadband service.
There are a number of such projects around the UK, with lots of websites giving information about how to get started and providing links to other companies that can help.
A phrase you might read on community broadband websites is 'technology agnostic'. It simply means using the most appropriate technology for your area, whether that's fixed cables, satellite, wireless or any combination of the three. A community might, for example, rent a high-bandwidth satellite connection and beam it around the neighbourhood using a Wi-Fi network.
Trevor Sherman decided he had enough of waiting for ISPs to bring broadband to him, so with some help from his friends, he built one it in his village of West Haddon in Northamptonshire. "The starting point for a campaign is to do a realistic assessment of demand in your local area.
"Find a way of setting up your own registration scheme and talk to the people who are interested. You can also get them to help with the campaign. You need to be brutally honest about potential demand, as this is the key to deciding what you are aiming for with your campaign.
"In our case, we went for a 'community broadband' approach. In total, 11 of us - all small businesses - put in £900 each and formed a not-for-profit limited company. We decided to buy the backhaul - the fat pipe to the internet - from Aramiska, a two-way satellite provider, and we then set up a wireless network in the village ourselves. It's amazing the talent you find in your own village when you look."
West Haddon and Winwick Community Broadband went live on 4 October 2003 and 20 householders in the neighbouring villages now subscribe to the service.
Don't be put off by the problem of building the network, as the backhaul provider will usually help out or at least give advice.
Band on the run
The unpalatable reality is that broadband may never be delivered to your community on a proverbial plate. However, this does not mean that it is beyond your reach.
The technology to supply broadband to even the remotest rural idyll or hidden hamlet certainly exists; the key is persuading an ISP that they can make a decent profit by offering a service there. Or follow West Haddon's example and form your very own innovative ISP.
The government thinks this is the best way forward for remote communities. It sponsors a project called the Community Broadband Network, which pools knowledge and experience from successful community projects, and assists with new incentives. Its website is a good place to begin.
Strength in numbers
Whether you intend to tempt a service provider into your community or go the whole hog yourself, it is vital to establish the level of support in your community. Here are some tips on how to proceed:
It is impossible to say which (if any) alternative broadband services are available in your particular area, but here are a few representative examples for reference.
Campaign and information sites:
A comprehensive list of broadband suppliers can be found here.
Updating your subscription status