Saturday, 17 September 2011
So, the day after the FibreWalk and am just pondering all that was discussed. As Colloquia went, it was perfect, and once again confirms the formula works: community + industry + public sector brings together a breadth and depth of knowledge and experience that is frequently missing from events targeted at specific sectors. No keynote speakers, just let everyone talk to each other. After all, each of us is an expert in our own right, aren't we?!
This blog post can be read at 5tth.blogspot.com
It certainly was Informal Yet Informative, and it would have been impossible to capture even a fraction of the individual and collective discussions which occurred as the group spread out across fields, bridges, roads, and footpaths, and then regrouped to look at specific issues which rural FTTH faces.
I guess the defining message from the day has to be the importance of communication within the necessary partnerships that will deliver next generation to rural areas such as Cumbria.
No community is an island.
The fibre industry knowledge that was available to all attendees yesterday from the ITS team, Donny Smith of Jaguar Communications, John Colton of Lucid (and others), highlighted the different approaches available, and required, to solve the thorny issue of Digital Britain. However, that industry knowledge is impressively enhanced by engaging with all levels of the community involved, from the wider County and District levels, down to Parish and individuals within that community.
There was little envy for the County Council with 9000 employees (represented by Janine from Durham County Council); yet, somehow those 9000 employees need to communicate effectively internally and externally in order to ensure that the region gets the right results. A tiny Parish with 6 Parish Councillors also has to capture the knowledge and opinions from within the parish to make sure the solution chosen suits everyone as part of the big picture for the Parish, now and in the future, as well as of the County. Finding the right professional advice from industry to look at potential solutions that may only be feasible when local input is harnessed is also vital. So, communication is key.
From technical solutions, such as FTTH, FTTC, FiWi, directional drilling under rivers and the concerns of the Environment Agency about bentonite (which is used to ensure the drill head turns smoothly) to the different names used worldwide for drilling equipment - hogs, snakes, ferrets, subsoilers, tillers etc, through funding - match funding, locally raised money for shares, BDUK, partnerships and syndicates- to sustainability, and on to the somewhat treacherous and unfamiliar grounds of archaeology, botany, AONBs, and protected species, I'm pretty sure we covered everything!
We had a representative of what must be the Final One Percent from the top end of Swaledale, and no-one can envy that community the search for a solution for the next generations, but there has to be one found if this country is to be digitally inclusive. There was much discussion about "Outside In" ie not focussing on areas where the market will (eventually) provide but on those areas where the solution is the most challenging, as well as most needed.
"Do it once and do it right" shone through, and James Saunby of Grey Sky Consulting outlined just how enormous the challenge is to do that in areas such as Northumberland where it has taken a mere 18 months for the EU to solve a simple State Aid issue to get the USC to people, let alone anything more permanent.
The debate about BT's FTTC cabinets being "fit for purpose" for next generation in rural areas was once again raised, and no matter how often this subject comes up, the answer always appears to be the same. They quite simply ain't part of the solution, mainly, it would seem, due to the design. Deliberate or otherwise, the cabs just don't seem to be future proofed e.g. for FTTH upgrade and anyone looking to spend money on rural FTTC should be aware of the shortcomings of those cabs, and look instead to other cabinets, and hence other solution providers, such as Rutland Telecom, Vtesse etc.
Access to backhaul is always going to be a problem and any region which doesn't address this problem before anything else is going to struggle. However, it was interesting to hear how county councils are having to look for ways to match fund whatever BDUK have allocated to them, before actually looking at the size of the problem within their region and what funds will be required to solve it. Considering how long the country has known that we need to get FTTH in, the central approach to solving it with the £530M does appear to be ill-thought out, whichever angle you look at it from.
Mobile coverage, which was patchy on the walk, shows that an enormous investment would be required to bring rural mobile broadband up to scratch if that were the only problem; yet, it doesn't take much to work out that mobile backhaul could be infinitely improved if FTTH or Fibre To The Village was solved first, with pico and femto cells deployed to back up more beefy existing mast backhaul.
The importance of the farms in our countryside cropped up again and again. Donny Smith (who is also a cattle farmer as well as a 10,000 square mile network builder) spoke at the evening meal about needing to be self-sufficient and valuing our farmers - as a nation we import a phenomenal quantity of food which we should be growing ourselves. Farmers have a diverse range of skills, as well as knowing their land intimately, and we should all be much more aware of their part in our future, for broadband and beyond. The farm shown on the graphic is just one of approximately 300,000 in the UK, but a stark warning about the future for such important industries came during the walk when news broke that an industry which used to employ 196,000 people had lost four of the remaining 6000 miners in a tragic accident.
The landowners and farmers in rural UK stand to play an integral part in next generation broadband, particularly for community-led networks, and it was good to have at least three farmers on the walk to give accurate information about how that could work and what is required.
Does everyone want all-singing, all-dancing tomorrow's world applications? It seemed there was far more concern over not being able to do even the day to day online tasks today, and it was reported that villages close to exchanges are expressing interest in community fibre projects because the 6-8Mbps they have today is already insufficient. The USC is not just backward thinking, it is also totally unrealistic as a target for consumer contentment. It is, more than likely, a rod for our own backs.
One of the exciting things for me about the FibreWalk is seeing how a small village begins to understand just what future-proofed next generation broadband means for seemingly unrelated projects - the village hall, the school, regeneration of community assets, and developing new business opportunities, such as tourism and social enterprises off the back of it. Public meetings? Pah! Take the village for a walk and the light finally begins to dawn how broadband really is at the centre of everything, as people like myself have been saying for a very long decade and more.
Much, much more was discussed and, well.. you had to be there!