How grassroots broadband can succeed where telcos fear to tread
Slow broadband in rural areas is often a fact of life for local inhabitants that has to be endured until one of the big telecoms operators decides it's economically viable to extend their network. It's not easy, but not-for-profit grassroots community projects can provide an economically viable alternative.
For small communities that don't want or need a large telco to provide their broadband connections, or can't convince them to come to the area in the first place, grassroots campaigns can provide an alternative route to delivering internet access.
However, there's a problem with this approach that often only becomes evident once such rollouts are well underway.
In 2009, the UK government set out its ambition that everyone in the UK should have access to a minimum speed of 2Mbps. It was a step in the right direction for those in more rural areas of the country left struggling with sub-1Mbps download speeds, and even worse upload speeds. However, with little incentive for traditional telecoms providers to take their networks into the most rural parts of the country, many such communities have taken matters into their own hands.
While funding is frequently an issue for any small community broadband project, with enough campaigning, sponsorship and a spot of state-aid assistance via funds like the RCBF (Rural Community Broadband Fund), the necessary investment can often be raised. Another key issue, the skills needed to set up and run a local broadband network, can also potentially be solved by pooling the expertise of more than one community.
"It was only when several communities got together with their individual skill sets that we realised we had a network of people capable of building a fibre network," Chris Conder, one of the founding members of the B4RN.org.uk rural broadband project in Lancashire, told me on Monday. "We are not perfect, and our original plan has been modified due to some spectacular input from the communities themselves. They have found ways of digging and finance that we hadn't heard of before."
B4RN is a community-run project set up to bring fibre-to-the-home (FTTH/FTTP) connectivity to inhabitants of several small Lancashire villages. Unlike BT's fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) approach, which is considerably cheaper to implement than running fibre optic cable to every house or business, B4RN's approach is fibre all the way.
Currently, the B4RN project only has around 14 premises using the service, but there are nine more already installed and ready to go live, and approximately 60 more semi-installed. This has all been achieved within one year, Conder told me.
"We have learnt a hell of a lot. In another year, there should be potentially 2,000 customers on [the network]. If we have 400, we will be solvent."
Should it reach more than 2,000 customers within its third year of operation, the project would be able to start paying back its shareholders, Conder said. As B4RN's rollout demonstrates, the economics of rural broadband projects can potentially add up for local communities in a way they cannot for companies like BT without government incentives.
The volunteer factor
However, beyond money, rural projects such as this often rely on one or two key individuals for the stewardship and maintenance of the network, placing them in a position of responsibility for what (at least initially) is voluntary work outside of their day jobs. This was the case at the outset of the B4RN initiative, which relied heavily on the expert knowledge of one person who "has built networks all his working life", Conder told me.
"It's people power, and it's just a crying shame that the government is too blinkered by telco copper hype to see the wood for the trees" — Chris Conder, B4RN.org
Ultimately, as the network grows (which, by the very nature of far-flung rural communities, often tends to mean grow to a very limited size) more emphasis is placed on these individuals until eventually for one reason or another they move on, or simply decide they want their evenings and weekends back.
"Volunteers can only be expected to do so much, and when fatigue sets in, it's understandable," Conder said.
But what happens to the network at this point? If there are no technical skills within the community, the project will need external management or expertise to keep it ticking over, and often the only companies that are interested in taking on the job are the large telcos that the community was trying to avoid being reliant upon in the first place.
However, Conder says it doesn't have to be this way.
"The project did rely on one or two key figures, but as it gains momentum more people from within the community are [becoming] involved and making the company stronger," Conder said. "We have also found that there are some very competent people out there who are more than happy to work for shares until we can pay them."
Growing the network
According to Conder, to avoid the problems resulting from relying so heavily on key individuals, taking the network to surrounding communities is key. Training new technical staff is also a must, in addition to filling back-office roles such as marketing and finance.
"We don't see any issue with the future of our network - the skills needed are either already in our community or people are being trained as we speak. Even very highly skilled technicians are learning new ways of working, new equipment is being used that has never been used in this country, and they are working with suppliers to tweak it all up to perfection," she said.
One of the benefits of a community-led broadband scheme, if you can get it off the ground and keep it afloat, is the sense of ownership felt by the people involved in it.
"They will have served their time for shares. They will be working for their own company. They will be the stewards. They won't be like other engineers who are demoralised by working for a telco who isn't delivering what it promises unless you live in a little green box," she said.
"It's people power, and it's just a crying shame that the government is too blinkered by telco copper hype to see the wood for the trees," Conder added. "We are building a network of people, not just machines."