Thursday, 11 August 2011
The Broadband 4 Rural North project has launched. This post will endeavour to give a little background to the project from my point of view as a Founder Member, and maybe, just maybe, persuade a few people from outside the area to get involved as shareholders.
This blog post can be read at 5tth.blogspot.com
I could write about how long I have known Barry Forde - my first keynote speaker at the first broadband event (AFAIK) in the UK - and why I respect him so much. Or how much I hate the fact that his vision for Project Access was kyboshed till it became an utter joke that remains an embarrassment to this day in Cumbria. Or my regard (read: love) for Chris Conder (aka Cyberdoyle) and all she has achieved and continues to, or my interest in rural broadband, or my long-held conviction that FTTH + FiWi is the answer, whatever the question! What matters is not the past or opinions, but the present and future for rural areas seeking true broadband solutions.
Lancashire is little different from any other county. It has large conurbations, such as Blackpool, Preston and Burnley, as well as vast swathes of rural hinterlands. Attempts to bring true broadband to the county in the past have been piecemeal and on the whole ineffective, despite a few best efforts. Yes, VM and others have reached into the urban areas but there has been little appetite to reach the tendrils of broadband to those who need it most.
Last year, Lancaster City Council decided to apply for £750,000 RDPE funding to run an innovative pilot project to a small patch of rural Lancs and connect 320 businesses to a future-proofed fibre network. The project was cut to the cloth available, as you would expect in a county renowned for its textile history, but only progressed part way across the loom (or Lune). For one reason and another (which cannot be discussed here due to ongoing scrutiny), that project was set aside in favour of the City working on a far more extensive project with the County Council - to bring broadband to the whole of Lancs, spending a minimum of £30M, match funded to £60M by a winning bidder.
The key thinker behind the initial RDPE bid proposal went back to his shed to ponder. (I am beginning to think of him as a cross between Great Uncle Bulgaria and Wellington!). Some time later, our much respected and friendly Fibre Womble appeared in our inboxes and said, "Let's JFDI anyway".
And so, B4RN was (re)born at the beginning of this year. New name, far greater ambitions, a business plan that had taken off from the fledgling idea that had been quite literally knocked out of the nest before it grew wings, and a team who are at the very least determined to give this a serious go. Again!
Do it once and do it right seems to have become the mantra, with a strap line of "B4RN will go the extra mile".
Looking at who has been cced into many of the mails during the past half year and more, I estimate almost 200 years of business, technical and local expertise were involved from the outset. As each day passes, this grows, and grows, and grows, and we must be getting close to (if not passed) 1000 years of experience already from those inputting into the project on a daily basis. Not only is that no mean feat, but it means that B4RN is benefiting from experience that covers a wide tranche of knowledge and viewpoints.
The work behind the scenes has been phenomenal. Opinions have been sought on every aspect - locally, nationally and from world renowned experts in many fields - this is not just about broadband as the project will be community-owned and run.
Every property has been mapped and distances calculated. Suppliers, partnerships and potential JVs discussed, chased up, and the intricacies of the tech design put through its paces. Landowners approached, discussions held, minutiae bandied about to get agreement. Finances pored over with fine toothcombs, taken to expert advisors, and regurgitated with increasingly positive noises. Meetings have been held across the area already, and more are planned for the first two weeks of September because engagement of the local community is paramount. Fliers are at the printers, although many started to be circulated at the beginning of this week. The website has been built and then re-designed and built again. (And this paragraph cannot even begin to encapsulate what has been going on with B4RN in 2011!)
Whilst none of us think that this is going to be an easy task, one of the uplifting threads to all of this has been the willingness to TRY. Lawyers looking at legal details through magnifying glasses, local people with and without knowledge of the internet helping to put each aspect into context for neighbours, online and offline friends offering incredibly useful advice (you know who you are, we will get to it all asap!) ETC.
The T of the SWOT analysis hardly needs to be done when the Local Authority is planning a county wide procurement, but the reality of that deployment is that the 8 parishes involved in B4RN have little chance of getting more than 2 -10 Mbps from that. One of the bidders cannot even tell anyone what technology they plan to use nor what capacity that will offer to this area this week. B4RN is offering a gig.
We can argue round that figure as much as you wish, but the detail is in the Business Plan on the website. We have been as transparent as anyone could ever wish, and possibly more so than could be deemed sensible, but maybe that just shows up the foolhardy nature of constantly citing "commercial sensitivity" with PUBLICLY FUNDED projects. Why hide the detail away? What if the community could contribute if only they knew? B4RN works on that basis...you, yes, you, may have something that will help this project succeed so we need to make sure you can see where that might be.
B4RN is seeking no public funding to go ahead. One of the gripes I have had for far too long is that no-one has been pursuing the Public-Private-Community Partnerships that I have been pushing since before CBN days. Use public money, get private sector involved, but use the money of the SMEs and residents in the community too.
In this instance, I am an honorary resident, and you will all be glad to know that my promise to put my dosh where my very big mouth is earlier this year has been more than accepted by B4RN! And I am relieved to finally have a project to back. With similar support from others who fancy a punt, B4RN could prove the viability and sustainability of rural FTTH once and for all. The best bit is that I get to choose which property benefits from my investment and gets 1 year's free connection to B4RN so I've been looking at holiday cottages for working weekends away in the Trough of Bowland and the Lune Valley ;)
So, take a look at B4RN. We don't have £1million or £30million to play with before starting, but we have a serious business plan and vision that few others share right now for rural FTTH gigabit broadband. We are JFDI with this community's support - both the geographic community, and the community of interest around the world who reads blogs like this and want to see a project with heart and brains succeed. Register your interest to receive the share offer doc in October, and why not consider putting a few pennies behind B4RN? Between us, we could connect a fair few holiday cottages and that bit of Lancs is scenic, friendly, and within spitting distance of the coast and the Lakes .... I feel a Gigabit colloquium coming on ;)