…or, “a different kind of social networking”
There’s been some good reporting recently on the B4RN (Broadband For the Rural North) initiative, which aims to deploy a fibre broadband infrastructure to over 1300 properties in a rural area of my native Lancashire, which would otherwise almost certainly fall into the 10% of fast broadband have-nots by 2017.
If the build was left to a commercial entity which needed to pay dividends to it’s investors, it would be very difficult for the plan to pass the litmus test, because of the high overheads involved in a large company, and the need to make profit.
Well, for one thing, it’s a smaller project. The second one is that it seems to be less reliant on public funding.
The B4RN plan is to spend £1.8M in phase one, the main hub site, connectivity back to Manchester (a sensible move, for access to peering and transit at market rates) and the initial premises coverage, with a total of £5.65M invested once all three phases are completed.
Initially, the plan was to seek bootstrap funding for the project from DEFRA’s Rural Development Programme, however, the ability to get this for a rurual broadband project was subsumed into countywide BDUK funding, centrally administered through Lancashire County Council. It would then end up looking the same as the other countywide schemes, with the spectre of possibly still getting nothing, or ending up with an expensive and box-ticking pig-in-a-poke, all run by a commercial subcontractor who is taking their generous slice of the pie.
Not to be deterred, they have gone down the do-it-yourself route in more ways than one:
- Seeking funding through subscriptions and issuing shares in a community benefit company. The infrastructure is built by sharing the cost locally. The infrastructure is owned by the community.
- Where possible, using existing skills and labour from within the community – such as building ducts over farmland. This reduces the amount of highway wayleaves required, and the need to use external, council approved, contractors to install ducts. All keeping build costs down. Show me a farmer who doesn’t know how to dig trenches, and I’ll show you a duck without a quack!
- Where skills exist locally, such as above, allow them to be donated.
- Where skills don’t exist in the community (such as fibre splicing), develop them locally, rather than buy them in.
- Operate the network locally, using local people, training them as necessary.
I’m really excited about this project, because it’s being led by the community, for the community. I like that it’s based around it delivering local benefit in more ways than one.
Compare this to the centrally funded schemes using large contractors to deliver the services. There’s little or no long term job or skill creation in the region, as the skills can be brought in from elsewhere in the organisation when required (e.g. during buildout) and they leave when the work is done. The operations staff are going to be situated in some remote control room. The people who fix faults “might be able to come tomorrow”, as they have a 2 hour drive to get there.
There is also a net outflow of subscriber revenue from the region, into the centralised finances of the large contractor, where profit is then paid out in the form of dividends to shareholders, taking the money further and further away from the region.
Because of the way B4RN is being done, there is an opportunity to reduce this net outflow of wealth, which has got to be economically good for the region, as well as being more responsive and focussed on the needs of the local communities served.
I look forward to this project succeeding, and demonstrating that there’s a real alternative to overweight, centrally managed, uber-projects that chew up vast quantities of public funds.