Some commentators say the talk about 'broadband for everyone' is all very well, but it will cost a fortune to roll out to rural areas. But it does not need to be vastly expensive, says community broadband expert Malcolm Corbett.
The small market town of Alston in rural Cumbria is an unlikely setting for a revolutionary next-generation broadband project. Lying at the confluence of the Nent and South Tyne rivers, and surrounded by beautiful moorland, Alston is perhaps most famous for appearances in films such as Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist.
Yet it is here in Alston, the most sparsely populated parish in England, that the local community has determined to set up a fibre infrastructure connecting all premises in the town and nearby hamlets, with wireless hops to some of the more remote farmhouses.
They plan 100 percent coverage with a network capable of delivering 100Mbps symmetric connections. In the week that the government's Digital Britain interim report highlights some of the problems with rural broadband coverage, how can Alston be so audacious as to assume it can do something many commentators think impossibly uneconomic?
The answer lies in part in the town's broadband history. In the early noughties, refusing to accept that ADSL and therefore broadband were somewhere over the far horizon, Daniel Heery, a local social entrepreneur — with equal emphasis on both words — set up Alston Cybermoor. This experiment was one of the first community broadband ventures, and Heery set about raising money, organising the community and investigating technology.
From this hard work emerged the Cybermoor wireless network, connecting all parts of the community and bringing low-cost broadband to the population, years ahead of ADSL. Today the Cybermoor network is used by well over one-third of the local population, even though ADSL did finally arrive.
From Cybermoor to Fibremoor
However, Heery is not the type to stand still. Last year he started thinking the impossible. Could Alston Cybermoor be turned into Alston Fibremoor? He turned to the co-operative enterprise I work for, the Community Broadband Network.
It was a tall order: 938 households with a population density of 6.3 homes per square-kilometre — the English average is 157 per square-kilometre; a requirement for 100 percent coverage of the town, hamlets and the moorland farms; end-user pricing about the same as people pay now — that is, no price premium; plus with no possibility of reusing existing infrastructure — Cybermoor owns no telecoms street cabinets, poles or ducts. How close to a viable commercial model could it get?
The answer is pretty close if you make certain assumptions about take-up, financing and design. Cybermoor already has a strong local brand with good take-up in the community, and it can organise demand.
With financing, if you start from the assumption that the fibre will be in the ground for 25 years — and probably 40 years — the project lends itself to utility-style financing and returns. As for design, an intelligent network architecture coupled with the use of local contractors keeps the costs down.
It turns out that with a comparatively small amount of public subsidy this project can fly. Local residents can benefit from super-fast broadband with the line rental for the fibre costing about the same as the existing copper.
As we debate current and next-generation rural broadband coverage, the question for the politicians behind the Digital Britain report is whether this and similar models can be replicated elsewhere.
Does it make sense to focus public expenditure on make-do-and-mend approaches to rural 'notspots' and 'slowspots', or should we instead seek to develop next-generation solutions that will future-proof those areas?
I think we should pursuing next-generation solutions. After all, if a credible case for next-generation access in Alston can be constructed, surely it can be done anywhere.
Malcolm Corbett is chief executive of the Community Broadband Network, a co-operative enterprise set up in 2003 to support community broadband initiatives.