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How Wessex Internet Works To Bridge The Digital Divide

In a large, sloping pasture edged by mature oak woods and hazel coppice, four men stand in a line. They pass along a thick, black communications cable, hand-over-hand, like a fishing crew from a bygone era. A hundred meters across the hillside, under the wary gaze of a flock of sheep, a tractor is drawing out the slack, until the cable is extended the full width of the field.

“Okay!” comes the shout, and the team lets their load drop. Ludo Skinner surveys the cable neatly extended across the field, ready for installation. “Overcoming the challenges of connecting rural communities presented by the landscape around us – the gradients, natural obstacles like trees and rocky outcrops – is what Wessex Internet is all about.”

Skinner is the Infrastructure Director at Wessex Internet, an internet service provider telecommunications company based in southwest England, a rural region of the United Kingdom with few major population centers. “For a long time, rural communities and businesses found it very hard to get high-speed internet,” Skinner explained. “The cost to build in these areas is prohibitive to most other operators across the country, which leaves those who need it most left behind.” Wessex Internet was born out of frustration with that situation and is focused on building infrastructure to reach those that no one else will.

A journey toward full-fiber technology 

James Gibson Fleming started the company back in 2010 to get better connectivity to the properties on his farm. All they could get at the time was .5 megabits per second down an old cooper line. That made everyday activities difficult then, but now, over a decade later that speed would be equivalent to being cut off from the modern world. Not because you can’t stream movies and the kids can’t play video games. Good connectivity is now a necessity, especially in the post COVID-19 era and will become more so as every part of our lives become more cloud based.

When the U.K.s national telecommunications network operator quoted exorbitantly high installation costs to bring him high-speed internet, Gibson Fleming took matters into his own hands and started his own internet service provider. Initially he used a fixed-point wireless system, which uses a microwave and line of sight link to provide connectivity from a mast to a customer. As the network and customer numbers grew, fiber optic cable links were required to increase the bandwidth in the network. As demand grew and subsidy became available to assist with getting to the most challenging communities to reach, the company then focused its strategy towards full-fiber technology, building fiber network all the way to the property of the end user, aided by the availability of government support to connect rural areas. Full-fiber technology is defined as an optical cable all the way to each connected property, as opposed to fiber to the cabinet and the old copper cable to the property. This is the future of connectivity across the U.K., and across the globe. Wessex still maintains its fixed-point wireless network and is connecting new customers to it but isn’t actively adding to it. Over the next few years, the majority will be decommissioned as it migrates customers onto its ever-expanding fiber network. The challenge now is to scale the rate of build across its rural network. All of which is carried out by direct labor teams. 

Building a collaborative culture

"At the core of our rural build model is working alongside local communities and landowners to bring the next generation full fiber to people that otherwise wouldn't have basic connectivity", said Skinner.

“We understand the challenges of the terrain and how to overcome them. A huge part of continuing to foster the right culture within the team as we grow and maintain our reputation with communities and landowners is recruiting engineers and operators locally to join the force behind building our network. Often these crews have experience working on the land and understand the countryside. They are used to thinking on their feet, solving the inevitable problems that arise and getting the job done to get customers connected quickly and cleanly,” Skinner explained. “That’s in large part to using efficient methods and machinery. The cooperation of landowners depends on leaving their land as we found it, by keeping disruption to an absolute minimum. And a project only makes economic sense if it’s realized on time and on budget.”

Wessex are using a Vermeer RTX550 ride-on tractor with plow attachment. Comfortable on uneven terrain, the quad-tracked vehicle makes a neat incision in the ground as it moves forward. The plow blade that does the cutting is mounted at the rear, on a vibrating hydraulic arm. Cable from a tractor-carried spool or pre-laid on the ground is fed into the newly made incision through channels at the back of the plow blade. Charlie Ormerod, foreman at Wessex Internet explained, “We’re laying two cables here, at a depth of just under a meter, plus marker tape midway between the cables and the surface. In this chalk the machine will do just under a kilometer an hour and all that you’ll see at the surface is a cut mark. Even that’ll be invisible in a matter of weeks. This is in a completely different league to traditional trenching which is way more time-consuming and therefore expensive — and that’s before you take into account the disruption that would cause to the landowners and long-lasting scar it leaves. So plowing is a game-changer for us.”

At the wheel of the RTX550, Wessex Internet operator Dave Burford clearly likes the tractor. “I’ve worked on some bumpy rigs in my time,” he said, “But the Vermeer cab is great. Much less vibration and noise, all the controls where you want them, with a clear view front and rear, so you can see exactly what you’re doing.” Other advantages of the RTX550 include an optional remote control for convenient maintenance and trailer loading, plus Vermeer Telematics to optimize productivity. Of course, the tractor can be combined with several attachments, not just plows.

“Of course, the RTX550 isn’t ideal for every situation,” Skinner clarifies. “With a plow, there’s always a trade-off between size and power on the one hand, and maneuverability and accessibility on the other — let alone purchase cost against the required output. The bigger and more powerful the machine, the deeper you can install a larger product, and the faster you can get the job done. But the harder it is to get to awkward places, and the more impact you have at the surface. Here, the RTX550 offers us a balance. But on other sites we’ve got two very different Vermeer plows at work: big RTX1250s doing the cross-country installation of the main network, and smaller PTX40s running lighter cables up to the houses.”

While the first of those machines is essentially an upscaled version of the RTX550, boasting nearly double the gross horsepower, the PTX40 plow/trencher is a fundamentally different concept. Roughly the size of a ride-on lawnmower, the PTX40 is a walk-beside machine. The operator stands nearby and controls the plow with a device reminiscent of a gaming console. The ability to move around while the work is in progress enables the operator to see the cut progressing and intervene immediately whenever fine-tuning is needed.

“If we’re connecting residential developments, we often need to get through narrow gaps and lay cables with the minimum noise and surface disturbance,” said Skinner. “The PTX40 is ideal for that kind of work. Its footprint is really small — it’s a couple of meters long and a meter or so wide. And because it’s pivot steer, we can get it around tight corners. It lets us plow right down to about 60 cm, albeit varying in different soil types, without doing any significant damage to the surface.” Wessex Internet uses the PTX40 to install fiber optic, but others commonly use it for electrical, gas and irrigation services as well.

A commitment to connection 

On the hillside where the RTX550 is plowing amongst the sheep, Skinner is joined by Vermeer dealer Jason Barnes. They quickly fall into conversation about ways to optimize the plow’s performance, pros and cons of different blade types and how to extend the working life of wear components. “Direct, in-person support is central to the way we operate at Vermeer,” said Barnes. “For us, the sale of a machine isn’t an end point, it’s the starting point for building a long-term relationship.”

Wessex Internet has been working with Vermeer U.K. since 2017 but running Vermeer machines since importing a V8550a from the US in 2014. They now run a large fleet of plows of various sizes from SPX25 vibratory plows and PTX40s through RTX1250s.

“First and foremost, for us it’s about installing network building as cost effectively as possible,” explained Skinner. “The Vermeer plows have helped us keep our costs down and underpin the business case for bringing full fiber to the most rural parts of our area. But operational efficiency isn’t just down to the spec of the machines. The backup we get from Jason and his colleagues — and the technical team over in Iowa — matters too. There are a lot of parallels between Wessex Internet and Vermeer: the agricultural background, the emphasis on relationships, the hands-on, result-focused approach. State-of-the-art digital technology is what Wessex Internet delivers, but our ability to deliver is based firmly on traditional community roots. Like Vermeer.”

To learn more about utility installation equipment, contact your local Vermeer dealer.


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