Neelie KROES
Vice-President of the European Commission

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Guest blog - how B4RN gets communities connected

Our goal is to get every European digital with access to fast broadband.

There are many different ways to do that – including communities taking matters into their own hands. Today a guest blog about the experience of Chris Conder of the B4RN project in the UK. This guest post presents the views of Lyndsey Burton, founder of choose.net and self-described "fan of great broadband projects everywhere", The blog presents Lyndsey's own views - she's not herself linked to B4RN - but I hope can be of inspiration to communities across Europe!

Building broadband, building communities: a UK example

Across the EU, Governments and networks are struggling against economic realities which make it difficult to bring better broadband to isolated areas. As a broadband writer in the UK, when I cover rural areas the story is usually negative: communities that could demonstrably benefit from fast, high quality broadband are being left with low speeds and poor quality access. 

What I'd like to share with you in this post is something different: a good news story about a project pushing back against the harsh conditions that rural areas across the EU face when it comes to digital and, in the process, serving to remind us just why good broadband access, in both rural and urban areas, is so important.

The UK's digital divide

Let's start, though, by looking briefly at the UK's broadband landscape. According to research published by the national regulator last month, the UK's average broadband speed is 17.8 Megabits per second (Mbps), five times faster than the average five years ago.

Unsurprisingly, the increase is being driven by increased availability and take up of "fibre to the cabinet" services. Equally unsurprisingly, however, such services are overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas and, where fibre is available in rural areas the nature of the technology used makes speeds 50% slower on average than in urban areas, according to the regulator.  

In sum, in the UK, as in many European countries, there's an increasingly wide digital divide between rural and urban areas.

Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN)

Which is where Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) comes in.

As a result of this group's work, some rural communities in the North of the UK are now receiving 1Gbps speeds from community built "fibre to the home" networks. This makes a huge difference to households in these areas. As you can see in the video below, a home could easily go from receiving less than 1Mbps through an ethernet cable to getting over 80Mbps over wi-fi, an incredible improvement.

B4RN is based in rural Lancashire, serving Lower Lune Valley on the edge of the Bowland Fells. It's an area of soft peat moorlands, sandstone fells and deep valleys, all of which can pose physical barriers to laying high speed cables or providing wireless access. But it's the size of local communities that has proved the biggest barrier to higher quality access thus far: connecting dispersed communities of a few hundred is seen as uneconomical by bigger networks.

So how did B4RN succeed?

Building broadband, building communities

In many ways, the B4RN projects are a microcosm of how we would like national infrastructure improvements to work.

A solution that fits the area: B4RN have argued strongly that only a fibre to the home network will adequately future proof rural areas. As we saw above, fibre to the cabinet solutions which still rely heavily on copper cables are much less effective in rural areas.

Larger networks seem unable or unwilling to bend their approach to fit the local area; smaller community projects can't do anything else.

Demand first: In 2011, founder members of B4RN sought out real demand from their local community: they got pledges of take up from households and gave discounts to these early adopters.

Later, they also gave community members a real stake by allowing them to become shareholders in what was now a Community Benefit Company (a category somewhere between a business and charity).

Across the EU, lack of take up has stymied faster infrastructure improvements. B4RN show that making demand a serious focus can not only justify projects but allow them to reach their full potential.  

Building communities: B4RN built on the initial support they gained by remaining extremely connected to their local communities.

Most notably, they strongly encouraged households to get involved by digging their own trenches so that fibre lines could be laid in return for company shares and the satisfaction of moving the project forward.

Over a number of years, community leaders like Chris Conder have fostered a feeling that the project is by and for the community which has sustained it through the inevitable setbacks any engineering project faces and has significantly reduced roll out costs.

Creating jobs and skills: some benefits of faster broadband can be hard to quantify: who can say how directly a modest increase in speeds leads to more digital businesses flourishing?

In B4RN communities, the speed increase is more sharp and the benefits even more clear.

The project trains community members in fibre installation and fusion splicing: high tech skills that will only become more in demand.

For ordinary users, too, the economic benefits are tangible.

66% of farms in the UK get speeds of less than 2Mbps, according to a Government study from last year. The same study found that those with faster speeds and better IT skills were far more likely to have a more economically efficient business.

Lessons for across the EU

As people across the EU strive to build better broadband networks, it's cheering to see an example which so plainly shows how working with local communities can benefit both community members and infrastructure providers.

[this blog was edited on 16 may to remove a reference to local council support]

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  • Chris Conder's picture
    Great Blog post, with plenty of facts to back it up! Well done Lyndsey. In the UK we have groups called 'Areas of Natural Beauty' and the B4RN parishes are part of the the Trough of Bowland patch. That group helped us get started, with a tiny amount of funding to visit all the parishes and print lovely banners, it also helped us form the B4RN company and we are very grateful. It is now helping a B4RN baby called B4YS (Broadband 4 Silverdale and Yealands) also take its first steps on the road to building their fibre link to the digital world. With support from the main councils or governments this could happen far sooner and far faster. It is a crying shame that councils won't let BDUK release the RCBF funding, nor will they help altnets like b4RN in any way. The only exception so far is West Oxfordshire who are going to support their version of B4RN called 'Cotswolds Broadband'. This is the first sign we have had of any council helping an altnet. This is a very sad state of affairs for the country, as without competition there will be no Digital Britain. We only have faster broadband in parts of cities because there are two main telcos, BT and Virgin. If it wasn't for Virgin we'd probably still all be on 2Mbps. In rural areas there is nothing, no competition at all, only miles of copper and no mobile either. It is vital to help the altnets. Soft loans are the best help. Seed corn funding or a Big society approach where planning officers help, and utilities share digs. There is so much that can be done but it isn't being done whilst politicians are in denial. The monopoly supplier in the UK has managed to convince the country that they can deliver 'fibre broadband' down a copper phone line, and despite us quoting the laws of physics to them the politicians would rather believe a multimillion pound marketing lobby. Its time for some fibre. Moral and Optic. The people are full of grit, the communities will help themselves if government enables them to. Now is the chance to build a future infrastructure for our future generations and get ourselves online too. Copper is not the solution. It is the problem. Patching it up and selling it as 'fibre' will not fool all the people all of the time. If we want our citizens to be digital we have to make connectivity ubiquitous, affordable and EASY. It is up to government to direct support where it will do the most good. And a copper cabinet is NOT the right place when it comes to rural areas. If a telco wants to do it in towns with its own money, fair enough, where it helps many go faster, but it isn't a suitable choice for rural funded solutions. It also won't help anyone on exchange only lines, or on any long lines. The digital divide is growing ever wider. And politicians will fall into it if they continue to ignore the laws of physics. Fibre or fiwifi can deliver a solution, and that funding in the hands of a community or altnet will go much further than it would if it was thrown down a copper mine.
  • kilroy83's picture

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