Can you dig it?

The issue of access to fast broadband for rural areas is one that every country is facing. If you’re fortunate to be in an area well served by broadband it’s easy to forget how disenfranchised and, literally, disconnected you can feel from the rest of the world. There are few places in Europe that have literally no means of access at all, but if you’re stuck on a sub-1Mb/s connection, even common or garden websites can be difficult to  use effectively, let alone modern services such as Facebook, YouTube and Skype.

It’s an issue that the European Commission for the Digital Agenda is aiming to tackle by having a plan to make a 30Mb connection available to everyone by 2020. In the UK however, the government’s aims are rather more modest, with a promise of just 2Mb/s to everyone by 2017. At my home, I’m lucky to be sitting on a 50Mb connection and this is set to be doubled, for free, to 100Mb before the end of the year. Personally, I’d be cheesed off if I could only get 2Mb/s. And that’s today: by 2017 2Mb/s will probably seem so low a speed as almost not bothering with.

To reach this target the UK government has created Broadband UK (BDUK) and has put aside a whopping £530m to help it make that incredible 2Mb/s dream come true.

Come on everybody, put your hand out for a slow, one handed clap.

However, in an ironically fine example of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s now seemingly forgotten, ‘Big Society’ idea, a UK farmer has taken the initiative, grabbed a tractor by its headlights and brought an ultra-fast  broadband connection into her home – by literally just digging one.

This great enterprise was brought to my attention by Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission, who is delivering the opening keynote at the Broadband World Forum 2012, on her blog. Here’s how Ms Kroes describes it:

“Last week I had the pleasure to meet Chris Conder, a British farmer. She was irritated by her slow Internet connection, much slower than her friends and family in the city. She was told, as I have been, it would cost at least €10,000 to connect to ultra-fast broadband.

But instead of waiting or complaining, she founded “Broadband for the Rural North” (B4RN): a campaign that grew into a company that completely changed my ideas about the broadband market. And together with her neighbors, she started digging. Within days she had the connection from the nearest network to her home, over 1 km away, which big companies had said was economically impossible.

Then she helped others in Lancashire to do the same. All funded by community shares. Now, several years later, B4RN offers internet at 1000 megabits per second for about €40 a month. A speed that makes the Japanese jealous, which barely exists elsewhere in Europe, and 500 times faster than UK government targets! Chris Conder proves ultrafast broadband is economically attractive with huge demand ready to be unlocked, even in the smallest communities. It’s not the investment in ultra-fast broadband that’s a risk: it’s outdated business models.”

I love the idea of this. BT said it wasn’t economically viable, but I guess this lady had a tractor and knew how to use it. Result- one trench and one fibre optic cable delivering 1Gb/s.

The network is paid for by the community itself, who need to put in £1500 to get a share of the company, and local people run the network. As the B4RN site points out, having access to superfast broadband could increase the price of your property by this much at least, so it could immediately pay for itself – aside from any business opportunities that having a symmetrical 1Gb/s connection could present.

So hats off to Chris, her tractor and her “if you can’t do it, I will”, attitude. Maybe this will inspire others across Europe to get themselves the broadband they deserve.

Can you dig it? Yes, we can.

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5 thoughts on “Can you dig it?

  1. You make an excellent point about whether 2Mbs will be adequate in 2017. If we think back 5 years and what speeds we were happy with would we have guessed that in 2012 we would be talking about speeds of 50Mbs like you have. While the speed is an issue we need to get away from focussing so much on it. B4RN will be delivering 1Gbs, people have stated that there is no point to this as there are no Pplication that will use it. That is not the point. The point is that this is a solution that will serve the next few generations and won’t have to be re-done in a few years.

    Chris has done a great job in Brussles, now we need to make Westminster take note. Fortunately our local MP supports us. As you say, this really is Big Society in action. As I’m sure Chris would say, she is a part of a huge effort up here with many people involved, many behind the scenes, but be sure, it’s happening. Ducting is being dug in probably as I type this by a volunteer somewhere with a tractor or mole plough.

    It’s a great sense of community and great to be a part of it. Perhaps we should suggest the Mr Cameron come up and see his Big Society in action!

    Thanks for the post.

  2. As the lady farmer in question… nobody asked me about this article so I couldn’t put them right… It is true, in 2009 me and my mates did lay and light the first rural fibre to the home. Since then many more of us have got together and WE founded B4RN, it wasn’t just me, but I am really proud of it, and was proud to be asked by the DA to talk about it at the assembly. It just shows the power of the people, for whom I am just the noisy cog in the big wheel. Honest! B4RN is still raising shares to complete the network, we only have enough at the moment for the core routes, about 40km, and there are 265 km to do all together to complete the first phase. It is a big job, and its slow because we have no angels, and no funding. It’s a cooperation between all the disenfranchised people in our parishes who have just got fed up with waiting for someone to do it, so we JFDI.
    If anyone would like to sponsor a metre of ducting we will write your name on it and photograph it as its buried, building our network.
    Of People.
    By the people, for the people. Do join us? Link on the website under ‘news’.
    b4rn dot org dot uk
    (sorry for shameless plug, but every little helps)
    chris
    PS remember, amateurs built the ark, professionals built the titanic. We Can Do IT. Fibre to the home is within the reach of any community.
    Thanks for your lovely post. It makes everything worthwhile when someone recognises our endeavours.

  3. Hi Yorkie, Chris – glad you both spotted the posts and thanks for your comments. A pleasure to highlight positive initiatives in UK broadband.

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