Small Company, Big Impact: Bringing Resilient Broadband to Rural England
Necessity is the mother of invention. When Matthew Hare discovered that no company was willing or able to deliver fibre broadband to rural England, he decided to do it himself. And just like that, Gigaclear was born.
Although Matthew founded Gigaclear to serve people like himself, he realised there was a real need for the service in rural communities which had remained completely underserved. Founded almost ten years ago, Gigaclear was the first and only broadband service provider in rural southern England—and that’s a big deal, because we have the potential to change people’s lives.
We may serve the occasional high-powered executive who needs fibre at their country estate, but more often our work services an underserved community. Everyone does everything online today and this means the need for high-speed connectivity will remain paramount. With the increase in remote work and streaming services, the demand for broadband is only going up. No one ever says, “I wish I had less broadband.”
I have been with Gigaclear for three years. My title has changed during that time, but my responsibilities have largely stayed focused on the technology side of the business and also assist with the operational side of the ISP. We have more competitors today than we did at the beginning, but being the first has its advantages. It also has its challenges.
The challenges with delivering these services are largely non-technical, such as acquiring wayleaves to dig and determining how to stay true to our core offering while growing the company. One of our biggest technical challenges, however, is creating resilience within the network.
Improving Our Network Resiliency
When you’re a small player, creating resilient networks that are economically viable can be a challenge. Gigaclear was a startup when we initially constructed our network, and like many startups, we didn’t have a lot of money at our disposal. It can be quite expensive to build a connection from London out to individual homes in rural communities, and doing so on a budget meant shortcutting some engineering best practices.
When I arrived at Gigaclear in 2017, our network was still not as resilient as we wanted it to be. I could still see the effects of some poor design decisions. My goal was to fix them, and improve the service for our customers.
If we have bad weather, flooding, and/or power issues, the network might go down and our customers are generally quite forgiving. But when we experience a network issue due to something on our side—maybe our core provider experiences a failure, for example—then our customers are less understanding. That drives customer satisfaction down.
Serving rural customers is different from serving customers in cities, where people don’t know their neighbours. Rural communities tend to have a town champion or spokesperson for a particular service. If that local champion is happy with our service, we’re happy. But if they are unhappy, everyone knows about it. Poor word of mouth can even become a barrier to our entry into a neighboring community.
A Temperature-Hardened Answer
Part of our problem was that we were using Juniper MX series routers that had been deployed incorrectly. That obviously had to change. In addition, our old network was layer two. We wanted to upgrade to a layer three, and we had to find the best hardware to accommodate these changes. We also needed temperature hardened kit which unfortunately was not included in the specification of the existing hardware.
I brought in an external consultant whom I’d worked with before to get their opinions on the way forward. As a Cisco reseller, they came up with a Cisco solution within the ASR 900 Series, a modular aggregation platform that delivers cost-effective converged mobile, residential, and business services. You get redundancy, a shallow depth, low power consumption, and high service scale in routers packed with useful features and optimised for small aggregation and remote point-of-presence (POP) applications. Its small footprint and extended temperature range support allow service providers to extend the reach of their Carrier Ethernet networks to more challenging and remote locations, all while saving money on air conditioning.
What set the Cisco ASR 920s apart and swung the conversation in Cisco’s favour was that they are temperature hardened. Because of its shallow depth and qualification for extended temperature ranges, the series can be deployed in small and harsh environments. Our cabinets in the streets are not insulated and they don’t have air conditioning; if it’s cold outside, the routers are cold, and if it’s hot, the routers are hot. Being temperature hardened, the Cisco product could deal with that.
In terms of price, Cisco and its Juniper equivalent were neck and neck however we were confident that we could deploy the Cisco routers in our cabinet under our current climate conditions in the UK. We felt confident going down the Cisco route, using ASR 920s and ASR 902s in different configurations.
The Long Road of Deployment
Deployment began towards the end of 2017. We started with a proof of concept in Oxford because that’s where the company was founded and as a result, it’s where we have the biggest contiguous network. Working with our consultants, we went through quite a few iterations for a plan to build a network ring within that network.
From there, we couldn’t just remove the old routers and stick in the new ones. We made sure that the fibre was everywhere it needed to go before we began deployment. Our goal was to prove that the routers lived up to their promise. When we saw that the routers lived up to their promise, the business case and funding was approved, and we’ve been deploying ever since.
Today, our deployment is about 70% complete, and expect to finish the rest by the end of 2021. We are prioritising new builds—any new cabinet automatically gets a Cisco ASR 920 or ASR 902 router, or sometimes both, depending on that cabinet’s purpose. Outfitting our legacy cabinets, however, is an operational exercise, and we have to consider the customers that are live when we take the service down.
To minimise disruption, the switch takes place at night. We might do two or three cabinets over the course of an evening, working two or three evenings a week, depending on other projects. The large geographic spread of our network makes deployment slow going, but we’re getting there.
We already see improvements in network resiliency. If we had a network failure back in mid-2017, we could lose anywhere between half and all our customers quite easily. Now, when there is a massive power outage or our back core provider loses a service, instead of 5,000–10,000 customers losing connectivity, it may only affect 1,000 customers and whilst that is still not acceptable, its an improvement. There’s still a lot of room for further improvement, but it’s a much smaller loss than what we dealt with before. It’s also the case that our customer base has tripled since 2017, so the failure domain is much, much smaller.
Big Service for a Small Business
Throughout it all, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by our solid relationship with Cisco.
We are a small company and we are likely going to remain a small company. We are certainly one of the largest alternate providers in the UK but will never have the purchasing power of the larger players. The nature of our business means our device purchase orders are in the tens of thousands, not millions. My previous experiences with massive companies is they can be quite difficult, even arrogant, to work with if you’re a small business. We haven’t felt that with Cisco in the slightest. In fact, they’ve made specific efforts to help our small business remain competitive.
They recently changed some of their firmware that runs on the Cisco ASR series to allow for a feature that was previously unavailable to us. It's a very specific type of multicast and it only applies to a specific implementation requirement in the UK. We future proofed our network as to not limit the type of wholesale services that could be offered across our network. It will help further ensure the quality of our network and the uptime that our customers enjoy. It took Cisco about a year for development and testing, and Cisco did that at no cost to us.
This also highlights the need for a good partner or reseller to serve as a bridge to the service provider. It’s important to find the right product at the right price at the right time, but a good partnership goes far beyond that. The reseller has to be someone you can work with for the long haul, because solutions are never a one-off purchase; they require servicing and upgrading. A good partner will also be there between purchases to listen to you and see how your needs change. Our partnership with Enable checked all of these boxes.
With our technical challenges taken care of, Gigaclear is now ready to face a whole new set of business challenges. We have created a brand identity as a rural broadband provider, but as more competitors are entering this rural market, we are now looking to service more densely populated areas, and to minimise the costs to all of our customers. That being said, coronavirus has driven up sales. Since COVID-19 hit the country, we’ve seen our highest sales numbers ever.
The value of our product has never been clearer. Before, people may have considered working remotely and thought they needed broadband at home. Now, they know they need it. And we’ll be here for them, delivering the best broadband on a resilient network that can reach even the most remote users.