Pat Pilcher: Rural broadband no problem in Lancashire

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Lancashire locals digging trenches for high speed broadband as part of the b4rn project. Photo / supplied
Lancashire locals digging trenches for high speed broadband as part of the b4rn project. Photo / supplied

No matter where in the world you happen to be, frustration with that old political hot potato, rural broadband, is almost a universal constant.

Whilst the New Zealand government and telcos continue to posture around the rural broadband initiative, frustration with the existing state of rural broadband in rural Lancashire saw villagers banding together to install fibre capable of blisteringly fast internet speeds that'd be the envy of nearly any major city in the world.

Called the B4RN project, its stated aim is install 1Gb/s broadband throughout the Trough of Bowland and the Lune Valley in rural Lancashire, north Yorkshire and Cumbria, all of which areas where BT won't be laying fibre optic cables any time soon.

B4RN largely consists mostly of local farmers who've created a non-profit company funded by share float. Just under a thousand people registered an interest in paying 3.3 pounds a month for their homes to be connected a fibre network.

Even though B4RN have managed to operate incredibly efficiently there are still costs with early estimates being that B4RN needed to raise 1.86m pounds to buy the ducting through fibre cable would be laid, as well as training locals to install the network. Costs aside, B4RN is shaping up to be a real success story and is providing gigabit speed fibre and wireless connectivity to over 23 rural villages.

I caught up with one of B4RNs founders, Chris Conder, A farming grandmother from Lancashire, who has been tirelessly promoting the need for rural broadband. One of her slogans has been JFDI "just farmers doing it" - judging by the near flawless performance of our Skype connection, I think there may be some lessons for disgruntled kiwi farmers and politicians from Rural Lancashire.

PP: What was the critical event that led to the formation of b4rn?

CC: After years of struggling to help people with Wi-Fi and satellites we got chance of some funding from Defra via our development agency in Lancashire. Several groups of activists in the parishes joined together to do a submission under the expert planning of Barry Forde. We put together a great project. But the council decided they didn't want us to do it so we didn't get the funding. So we had so much belief in our plan we decided to JFDI ourselves.

PP: So how does b4rn work? Do subscribers buy shares and invest in b4rn or does b4rn operate more along the lines of a traditional internet service provider?

CC: The way we decided to do it was to invite the community to buy shares, and we said if we got enough money in by Feb 29th we would start to build the core of the network to link the villages. We raised enough, we started. Owning shares gives us a pride in our network and encourages us all to work for it to make it a success.

We take advantage of UK tax breaks if we are taxpayers and get 30 per cent tax back on our investment, which is better than current interest rates.

We are nothing like a traditional internet service provider who has to buy its feed from the incumbent monopoly and use the phone network to deliver a service. Another way is to do work for b4rn and be paid in shares, i.e. for digging we pay 1.50 pounds a metre and with a good digger you can earn quite a lot, for which you only get 30 per cent in actual money from the tax man, but the full amount becomes your shareholding.

PP: What sort of networks does b4rn use?

CC: B4RN uses a dedicated fibre to every home it connects. It supplies one WISP already with more in the pipeline. It is an open access network in the true sense of the word. Any community wishing to buy its own feed and distribute it can do.

PP: Before b4rn, what sort of internet connectivity options were there?

CC: We have limited mobile coverage in the area, and also we have a lot of south facing hills which stop satellites working. Many of our phone lines are too long to get ADSL and some won't even support dial up. Most of our villages have some broadband, but it's too slow to do much with it these days now that sites are graphic rich.

PP: What sort of connection speed would a typical b4rn subscriber have?

CC: A typical B4RN subscriber would have access to 1gigabit, and depending on his equipment and how he has it configured can quite easily get 500 Mbps like Harry did in the video with his old computer. Newer models have seen speeds of 970 Mbps. Most of the time these speeds are symmetrical, depending on the server you test the speed on, as most speed testers can't test at such high speeds.

PP: How much does it typically cost?

CC: It costs the same for everyone. 3 pounds 30 a month. With no limits for legal use. (i.e. feeding another county with a wireless feed is deemed illegal)

PP: Wow that's pretty sharp! How has b4rn been able to be more cost competitive than a traditional telco?

CC: A traditional ISP has to buy from a wholesale supplier, and in the UK there is only one. They can charge what they like and work on a scarcity model, therefore to make a profit the ISP has to do the same. Access is rationed and you have to pay more if you want to keep your speed up or take a leased line costing a lot of money if you are a business dependent on it. B4RN has gone straight to peering, which means the false scarcity is removed and there are no bottlenecks.

PP: What sort of geography does b4rn cover?

CC: The original B4RN network plan was 265 km of duct covering 8 rural upland parishes, this is mainly hillsides with family farms, rugged fell land and sparse population, with little villages or hamlets in each parish. Since B4Rn started other villages have raised capital and joined the plan, so a new business plan is being worked out to accommodate them all. We now plan to cover 23 parishes.

PP: How has b4rn changed things for the villages it covers?

CC: It has been a driver for volunteering, for cohesion and breathing new life into the area, with neighbours getting to know each other better and working together with one parish helping another. It has shown the people that they have the power to change things for the better. It has brought new skills into the area and is creating jobs, which although they are voluntary at the moment or paid in shares, they will one day become new careers and full time paid positions for those who show their worth.

PP: What have been the biggest challenges in setting up b4rn?

CC: The weather and bureaucracy.

PP: Is there any advice you'd give for rural New Zealanders looking to do something similar to b4rn?

CC: JFDI, if we can do it so can you.

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