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Thursday, 25 August 2011

FibreWalk - every step a challenge

I'm not a dancing fool, despite what some may think, and learning all the steps for The FibreWalk has been tough. And it has exposed some of the real problems this country faces in meeting its (broadband) aims. But it has brought the possible solutions far closer. I think it is time to teach many more people how to do the FibreWalk.

This blog post can be read at

Many moons ago, I wrote and spoke about public private community (PPC) partnerships. As I recall, it was just before PFI and public-private partnerships became all the rage. Sadly, over the years, there have been few if any successful PPC initiatives in the broadband arena in the UK - or none that I can think of. In fact, more often than not, what we see is quite the opposite.

Often we get an unpleasant insight into public, private and community "egos" who, instead of working together, pointlessly pull each other apart. Working against each other rather than together. Whether for profit, or pensions, or perks - the motivations ruin any chances of successful solutions. It's time to bin that egotistical and self-serving approach.

We all know FTTH is the optimal solution. We know that there are many reasons that hinder progress. But it is only when you bring together the three ingredients which have been integral to EVERY event I have ever organised or been involved in - Public Sector, Private Sector and Community/Consumer, that it becomes clear what is required to get this country where it need be broadband-wise. I've been quite content to watch the terms I have coined - FiWi, JFDi broadband etc - "borrowed" without even a credit, but where has it got us if you lot all insist on working alone in your silos?

Work together, people.

So, enough talking now - we've talked the talk. Now, let's Walk the Walk.

This week, I was privileged to go on a walk across beautiful rural countryside with people for whom the technological problems of delivering FTTH are their every day bread and butter. It was ace! BUT....what is new to the techies, as it is for many including BT and VM, is rural FTTH. It's very different to digging up urban estates and roads. Literally every step proved to be another reason to stop, talk, discuss, problem solve etc. And at that point, you start to understand why the #FinalFraction is quite difficult. Whether it is 10% or 30% - how do you reach that final fraction with FTTH? That answer is not fully clear right now when so many are playing their own game.

However, projects such as B4RN show it can be done. And the transparency behind B4RN shines a light on the failings in far too many other projects - cards held close to chests, a failure to be open and honest, the focus on money rather than achievements, etc.

What can and must be shared, without it being abused by fat cats and greedy guts, is how the people that live in rural areas solve problems. Grassroots and community solutions have been developed over centuries, especially when these communities are a long way from the decision makers.

The FibreWalk was completely eye-opening. Each step opened all our eyes to both problems and solutions. All surmountable, as it happens, but fascinating in the different approaches taken by each side. I say "side" to emphasise the failures highlighted earlier in this post. There are no sides - we must work together.

Local knowledge can reduce costs. Technical know how can provide insights into the 'right way' to do things, so we can then apply local knowledge to make future-proofed solutions happen from the outset. A dyke, ditch, culvert or beck may appear to need drilling for the professionals. For communities, you go and find where the farmer's water pipe runs under that watercourse. Simple. And we ask the Environment Agency to start looking urgently at consents for works around water courses etc in tandem with the community needs.

Need to know what utilities are in this field? Well, this field belongs to X and according to the farmer I just asked, the owner should be moving sheep today from A to B, so let's look for him and ask our questions. And LISTEN to the answers. Engage the farmer, the person who knows this land far better than any other.

BT can't ask this type of question, nor can VM or any other commercial player. Not without paying. But local people can. And you can guarantee that by the time you have located said farmer, he already knows you are looking for him. Rural jungle drums don't need mobile coverage as much as those who have lost touch with the land - I've decided farmers are psychic!

Want to build a rural FTTH network in the UK to the Final Third, Tenth, Ninth or any other fraction? Then you need all the players to work together. This is not 'divide and conquer' time, nor a land grab, nor a chance for some civil servant to secure their pension on the back of it. It is time to put aside egos and profits, and work together.

We need folks in wellies walking across the countryside, looking at each bit of the fibre route and resolving each problem as it presents itself. Whether that is connectivity into ManAp, TeleCity, EuroIX, or using Electricity North West's poles to cross the countryside using existing infrastructure, or demanding that BT remove the failing copper and aluminium from ducts that need fibre in, or asking farmers to share their intimate knowledge with their own land.

It is time to work together. Stretch the money taken from the BBC coffers (which we have all paid into) as far as it will go to achieve what is required for the NEXT GENERATION.

I am getting bloody bored of saying it now but there is a bit of the FiWiPie for everyone. Even the greedy who are only looking to line their own pockets - and boy, has broadband brought those out of the woodwork in droves.

Stop trying to rip off those who care about this land and the people who live here. We need FTTH, not 11 alternative technologies that will require yet more funding very soon to be future-proofed. Or technologies without sustainable business plans that rural Parish Councils accept because of a lack of professional advisors on their side. Nor State Aid arguments that scare rural businesses and residents from making sensible choices, or ill-informed media reports.

What we need now is to JFDI and Do It Right.

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