Community holds key to broadband funding puzzle

Summary:The focus is on state and private funding for next-gen broadband, but community projects could help make the business case, says Malcolm Corbett

...are aiming for very widespread coverage. But so far we haven't seen a next-gen scheme that includes direct investment from the local community as part of the mix.

That looks set to change with plans being developed by the forward-looking town of Alston in Cumbria.

In a previous article I described Alston's ambitious fibre plans. To ensure they did not get left behind by the first-generation broadband revolution, Alston created Cybermoor — a community co-op that deployed wireless broadband across one of the most sparsely populated areas of England. In the process they inspired many other communities.

Now they have embarked on a project aiming to transform Cybermoor into Fibremoor. Their ambition boils down to three 100s: 100Mbps per second — a network that is capable of delivering symmetric, future-proof broadband; 100 percent coverage — no-one left behind; and £100 per year, or thereabouts, for the basic connection cost, roughly the price of the current telephone-line rental.

Alston are working on a community investment scheme to help get the network out to the farthest reaches of the community. If a viable model can be developed in Alston, it can work anywhere.

Others are looking to community models as well. The East of England Development Agency has recently developed a policy that envisages community investment as a key strand to support next-gen rollout in rural areas. Manchester has ambitions to create a multi-stakeholder vehicle to develop its network, with a degree of community or co-operative involvement.

Community self-help
This form of community self-help has deep roots. The principles of co-operative enterprise were developed in Britain in the 19th century, and spread rapidly around the world. They have been applied in many settings, often to overcome market failure.

Alston, Nuenen and the Scandinavians are not alone in forming co-ops to tackle telecoms issues — about 10 percent of Americans buy their phone and broadband services from local co-operative providers.

So if we all form a broadband equivalent of the Archers' community shop, will it be 'job done'? Not quite, but it will help. Colleagues at the Community Broadband Network have researched models showing that adding community investment into the mix could be the crucial element that helps make the business case stand up.

At a time of private-sector caution and public-sector constraint, this might just be the factor that tips the balance in favour of deployment sooner, rather than a lot, lot later. 'Nobody left behind' means 'Everybody involved'.

Malcolm Corbett is chief executive of the new Independent Networks Co-operative Association, which represents organisations building and operating independent next-generation broadband networks in the UK.

Topics: Networking, Tech Industry

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