The Grey Box in the road

Before we moved, friends often asked how I was going to work? “Ha!” I would reply with nonchalance, “as long as I have the internet, I can work anywhere!”

I hadn’t yet encountered what passes for the internet in rural Wales.

It is the proud lie of politicians, BT and Openreach that 95% of the British population has access (my italics) to fast broadband.

Access is one thing, being connected is another.

Seven years down the badly maintained and snail like line, memories of moaning at Virgin Media that my download speeds were less than perfect at a mere 30Mbs were to haunt me for the first year we were here. If you can remember what the early days of dial up speeds were like, we weren’t even achieving speeds close to that when we moved. It was as if we had truly stepped back in time to the 1990s.

I listened with dismay to the confirmation from locals when I asked what speeds they could get.

“On a good day we may get 2Mbs but if it’s raining or windy” (this I promise is true) “..well it sort of drops out completely. But never mind, I don’t really need the internet that much and if it is really important, I can always use it during the night when nobody else is using it.”

After about a month of yelling in frustration as my iMac struggled to do even the most basic internet tasks, I ordered a satellite broadband system. At nearly £50 a month and with a capped amount of data, it was extortionately expensive, but I could justify the cost completely as a business expense so was worth the dent in the bank balance. At least I could get a half decent speed at three times the cost of what our London friends were getting on a bad day with a hooley blowing outside.

(We even tried a microwave product designed to get to places that broadband sniffed at. Despite two hours of watching a man from the installation team walking around the house trying to get a signal he gave up saying he’d never known a dead spot like ours. I always blame it on the Sugar Loaf mountain for getting in the way. It’s big after all.)

Despite regular joyful email announcements from BT and other suppliers that Lightning Fast Fibre Broadband is Coming to Your Area, a swift (ever hopeful) check online would once again reveal nothing of the sort was happening.

The BT / Openreach saga is still going on all these years later.

A few weeks ago, on a sleety miserable January day, a very cold Welsh man turned up on our doorstep with one of those calibrated wheels you push along for measuring distances.

“Is that your garden?” he asked. “We need to know where to bury the fibre cable to the property, do you mind if it comes through your land?” I resisted the urge to bite his hand off. I’d be happy for it to arrive in any fashion it chose in order to reacquaint myself with the 21st century.

“Is this anything to do with the grey box three guys planted in the verge outside our house well over a year ago, saying fibre was imminent?” I asked. “They said it would be only a few weeks.”

The man with the measuring wheel smiled under his dripping beanie hat and sodden face mask. “They always say that. Thing is, see, nobody knows who is doing what.”

“Yep, I am beginning to see that,” I replied.

“It’s the contractors, see. We,” (indicating his embroidered logo on his waterproof jacket) “are just told what to do by Openreach. But they don’t tell us anything really. Just to go to so and so and make sure it is there and take a few measurements.”

“So, when is this supposed to happen?” I asked.

“Oh, by the end of March. Welsh Government has to have it connected by then!”

I tried not to let my hopes rise too much. He showed me a very wet sketch map of the proposed route to the Grey Box in the Road. “See that – we’re bringing it all the way round from Llanvihangel Crucorney. Your house is the end of the line.”

I nodded. “Where does it go after that?”

He said he didn’t know. Because Openreach hadn’t told him.

I left the poor guy to carry on measuring in the rain, having said I’d be more than happy for them to dig a trench as long as they kept well clear of the septic tank and didn’t frighten the chickens too much.

A few more weeks passed. The Grey Box in the Road remained an ever empty Grey Box.

Then another (differently logo’d) van and clipboard carrying man turned up.

“Hi. Where is the pole going?” he asked.

“What pole?” I replied.

I could see the start of another of those secret joke, “What on earth is Openreach playing at?” scenarios. Sure enough it began.

“Blah blah, Openreach, blah blah contractors, blah blah your neighbour has been paid £567 to have a pole on his verge..”


“According to this they have been paid to have a pole erected on the other side of the road. That’s what the notes say here. Not that I ever believe them.”

We shared another one of those looking to heaven, that’s Openreach moments.

“So the pole is to carry the carefully buried so far line from the Grey Box in the Road to the two houses overhead rather than underground?”

“Yup. Crazy isn’t it. And I work for the company contracted to put the poles in. Nobody wants them. Even the National Park has been trying to stop us putting them in for years!”

“I’m quite happy to bury the cable myself,” I said. He laughed. “Well good luck with that butty. You’ll have to deal with Openreach because by then the cable will be in the Grey Box!”

We did a dance around the familiar subject of the “How do I contact anyone from Openreach without going into a perpetual never ending worm hole?” and he left promising to pass on my contact details to someone, who might get back to me.

It’s near the end of February.

What odds am I given for the Grey Box in the Road being populated by cables by the end of March? This year.

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