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VFast’s WiMax broadband services are the forefront of bringing faster web access to Kent. Director Darren Brown sat down for a chat about the Digital Divide, the state of council-funded broadband schemes and the ISP's forthcoming 100Mb service.

VFast’s WiMax service operates exclusively in Kent. Are there plans to run a service in any other UK sites in conjunction with local councils?

Although currently based solely in Kent, our networks are rapidly approaching the borders of East Sussex and Essex and we are actively negotiating new coverage some of these areas. We have also been involved in the setup and running of similar networks in Hull, North Yorkshire and Manchester.

As our core network expands, we are always keen to work on new projects and rollout our services in new communities as we have done in Kent. Although there are no local councils outside of Kent that we are talking to at the current time, we are always open to new discussions – especially as our rapid growth in the last three to four years has meant we can now push beyond the Kent borders relatively easily.

Kent County Council (KCC) has been forward-thinking in making funding available for villages to join. Why aren’t more councils as proactive?

The communities in Kent have been very fortunate to have such a forward thinking council, and we are privileged to have been chosen on our merits to be a part of the scheme. It is great to see that technology is taken so seriously and that the Council recognises the needs of people to have a reliable connection in these modern times. Many people have felt the benefits to both their social and work lives.

It’s hard to say why other councils have not followed the lead from KCC and seen the obvious benefits, especially as broadband is such a huge buzzword these days! It may be due to downsized budgets in these hard economic times, but you could equally argue that the benefits to the economy would far outweigh the initial costs when you consider how many people rely on communications in today’s world.

What impact has the availability of VFast's service had on the rural economy and people's lives in villages where it’s on offer?

We have a lot of clients that either run small businesses or want to work from home. Previously they have found this difficult as they have not been able to use VPN connections, remote desktop applications, VoIP, etc, but having a connection from VFast has meant they can now do this. This also saves both travelling time and fuel so is a green option.

There have been areas where landlords have found it hard to rent out their business units to clients due to the lack of broadband, but with one of our connections they have had a lot more success, especially for businesses that require faster upload speeds that are found with our packages. Businesses are not alone however as families can now make more use of their broadband, all at the same time without worrying – although the kids may complain that they have no excuse not to get their homework done and submitted!

Was rural depopulation and businesses leaving a serious risk in areas where VFast now operates?

It is always surprising to see how much broadband can mean to people. It is not uncommon for our team to get enquiries from prospective clients asking if we can get to a certain area – something they need to know before they are willing to commit to buying a house, or relocating their business.

We have also been approached by estate agents to provide details of our coverage for certain properties they have on their books, with the aim of making the properties more attractive to potential buyers, so this is another thing we are starting to do. I would say there has definitely been a positive effect in areas that could have otherwise suffered.

The Wimax technology you employ can deliver speeds of up to 100Mb, with the service of that speed undergoing trials now. Is there any sort of timeframe for a launch - however provisional that might be?

There is always a lot of excitement when it comes to the maximum speeds available from any provider, especially from the more technically inclined. We always aim to meet these needs, whilst keeping a realistic approach to what people actually need.

We started testing the equipment we use to provide 100Mb to the end client towards the end of 2010, and the results were very positive early on. Speeds of 92Mbps were achieved using real world tests (in Kings Hill, near Maidstone) and we were really enthused by that – as were those kind enough to help us with the testing!

The aim of the testing phases we carry out are to conduct real world application tests in advance of what is required as this means we are ready to offer a faster service as and when the time comes. Demand isn’t there yet for a 100Mb service from the majority, but we are confident we can provide it when it is. I would anticipate a package being available late 2011/early 2012.

At just 1.4Mb, average broadband speeds across Kent compare quite unfavourably to other low density, rural areas of the UK. Devon, for instance, is ahead, despite Kent’s relative proximity to London. Why is Kent lagging behind?

I think this comes down to a few things. As Kent is within commuter distance from London, with the High Speed rail link and Eurotunnel , there will be a lot more people wanting to work from home and internet usage will be a lot higher as a result.

Kent is famous as being the “Garden of England” and communities tend to be spread out so, as well as the bigger towns, there are a lot more villages and smaller towns. The existing infrastructure that was originally intended to pass voice has to cope with the huge demands of the internet with services such as catch-up TV, online gaming, VOIP calls, emails, web browsing, music downloads...the list goes on!

People expect, and rightly so, to be able to take advantage of these things no matter where they are but unfortunately the rural areas have not benefitted as much because there has not been enough investment in upgrading the older infrastructure. This has left gaps between towns and rural areas, commonly referred to as the digital divide.

I don’t think Kent has suffered that much more than other areas, it has just been brought to the forefront with recent publicity. We hope that with our services in place Kent has actually been able to benefit from more choice and options when it comes to choosing a fast broadband connection. Our average speeds in some areas are in the region of 20Mb.

Aside from a relatively low density population in rural parts of Kent, are they are any conditions in the locality that have impaired broadband availability?

Again I think this just comes down to the way the original telecom network was constructed and BT consolidating and closing local exchanges, hence lengthening the distance to the exchange. Everyone knows the phrase “too far from the exchange” these days, and this is the most common reason broadband is not available.

Even some bigger towns are just that bit too far to receive, what today are considered, faster speeds. VFast have always aimed to bridge the gap in these areas and rollout our networks where they are required the most and this has proved to be both popular and successful.

What would have to happen for VFast’s entry level price of £17.99 to drop? Is customer volume the only factor?

In most areas our cheapest package is VHOME at £24.99, although in funded areas packages start at £17.99. Our prices have not risen in the last four years and we will not be putting up prices due to the new VAT increase, which is an effective 2.5% saving to our customers.

What we have to remember is that the technology we use is inherently more expensive per subscriber than other services, particularly as we have to effectively build the network as we go along according to demand. We do heavily subsidise our installation costs, but we also try to be as competitive as possible when it comes to our monthly charges. Our services offer unlimited downloads, and when compared to other broadband services we are very competitive, if not cheaper than some!

What impact do you expect Ofcom’s move to cut the wholesale prices BT can charge UK ISPs in rural areas to have in Kent?

This all depends on the services that are currently on offer, and how much investment is required where services are poor. If investment is heavy, it may result in ADSL prices climbing in certain areas and this would possibly result in different prices depending on your postcode, which would be a bad thing.

The changes will not be affecting our services as we rely on our own gigabit fibre ring around Kent, provided by our sister company Orbital Net. We do not see our prices rising at all regardless of changes in BT Wholesale prices.

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