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A series of upgrades are being made to the superfast broadband network on Dartmoor and Exmoor.

Internet service provider Airband completed its network in the two National Parks, on behalf of Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS), over three years ago.

This network provides access to superfast broadband (speeds of up to 30Mbps) to around 7,000 homes and businesses, making it possible for customers to download a film in under three minutes.

Airband has now commissioned a number of new upgrades to ensure that customers on the moors continue to get the best possible service. These changes have included installation of lithium-ion batteries on its masts, improving its mast radios, as well as linking the network to its fibre network.

Jon Parkes, Airband’s Infrastructure Manager, explains some of the changes his team are making. He said: “Power cuts are fairly common on the moors, but by replacing standard lead acid batteries on each mast with lithium-ion batteries, our masts can provide internet service without external power for significantly longer.

“With the increased internet usage throughout lockdown, we knew we had to upgrade the amount of data our network was handling. We’re upgrading our mast radios from double their throughput to ensure our customers have more data to work with.

“We also wanted to work on resilience and to that end, we are adding a link between our fibre optic network and the National Parks system. This ensures that the National Parks can draw a connection from two sources, and if either link is interrupted, the system will stay functional.”

Retired software developer James Paxman has lived in Lustleigh for over 20 years, and previously relied on a copper-wire based internet connection before switching to Airband’s network.

He said: “We’re in an isolated hamlet and when we moved here I had to be able to get a reasonable digital connection, but what we had then would be nowhere near good enough these days. There were always problems with the previous provider and there were very frequent dropouts which could last seconds or even a few hours.

“When Airband came along I was initially a bit sceptical but the offer was good, they did a survey and I went for it 100%. They provide a good service, the connection works well for what I need, and the speeds are faster than we had before. It’s also worked out cheaper as I cancelled the landline and use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.

“Having a reliable connection has allowed me to switch my mobile phone network so that I can use Wifi calling and SMS text messaging over Wifi. Previously my mobile phone simply did not work at home. While rural locations are digitally impoverished compared with urban connections, we’re very thankful to have the service we have.”

Jennifer Boyce, who lives outside of Dulverton, says her Airband broadband connection has been vital during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, not only for her but also her fellow Dulverton Gardening Club members.

“Airband’s broadband has made a huge difference and it’s proven to be an absolute lifeline,” she said. “Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to keep in touch with my family in Scotland and London as easily during the pandemic.

“With the broadband we had before, from another provider, we couldn’t even send emails, but the Airband network works really well. We can stream Netflix, which we couldn’t before, and we started to use Zoom for our gardening club meetings from last February during lockdown. It kept us all in touch with each other and we have been able to book speakers from much further afield to join the calls.”

Councillor Rufus Gilbert, CDS Board Member and Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Economic Recovery and Skills, said: “The broadband networks in the National Parks reach premises that are the very definition of hard to reach, which meets the overriding ambition of the CDS programme. Airband customers on the moors have been able to receive superfast speeds over the past three years and I’m sure they’ll enjoy what these latest upgrades have to offer.”

Councillor David Hall, CDS Board Member and Somerset County Council Cabinet Member for Economic Development, Planning and Community Infrastructure, said: “Establishing the broadband network on Dartmoor and Exmoor was a logistical feat in itself, but it’s encouraging to see Airband is continuing to look to upgrade its networks. The additional developments to broadband on Dartmoor and Exmoor, will continue to improve connections which is a huge benefit to users.”

Karl Tucker, Chair, Heart of the South West LEP, said: “We welcome the upgrades to the superfast broadband network on Dartmoor and Exmoor. This is vital progress in providing thousands of rural homes and businesses within the Heart of the South West LEP with a reliable and fast broadband connection. High-speed internet has never been so important as the South West works to level-up with other areas and to recover from the impact of the pandemic, and we are delighted to be supporting this through our Growth Deal funding.”

The environment was at the forefront of the design process for the broadband network in the national parks. By utilising fixed wireless access technology, Airband can provide a better service than copper cables through microwave signals. This means the only new infrastructure needed is a short mast on a high point and a radio on the side of each connected premise.

People who live in these protected landscapes can enjoy all the benefits of a fast connection, with minimal disruption to the environment, as no new poles need to be installed, and no ducts need to be dug. Airband has even camouflaged some of its radios to keep them as unobtrusive as possible.

In addition, on some of its sites, Airband has used renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines to provide the power for the network, where more standard power access was not available. This reduces the impact on the environment and means new power lines do not need to be constructed across the moors.

Airband is continuing its work with Connecting Devon and Somerset to provide a service to underserved communities with fibre builds across areas of Devon and Somerset. This project is bringing ultrafast fibre internet access to thousands of people across the county and is live in some areas already.