Wednesday, 18 January 2012
This blog post can be read at 5tth.blogspot.com
I've just returned fom a drive along the Mallerstang Valley where not a single property has anything approaching broadband, despite NWDA wasting £60k on a non-functional wireless solution (on top of the abject failure that was Project Access) to try to live by the spin that Project Access actually achieved *anything*.
I know that particular road well - my parents live and work at the other end of it. I know where mobile coverage starts and ends to the foot, and I know the plight of the Parish Council during the last 8+ years in trying to get BASIC communications into that population. And not just the permanent population but also the transitory one who pass through in ever-growing numbers along the Settle Carlisle railway.
For railway buffs, not only is Outhgill graveyard a striking and heart rending reminder of those who lost their lives building a railway through this deeply inhospitable landscape, but near the Moorcock Inn an entire train is buried after one of three horrendous crashes on this section of railway line. (See this S and C Tribute for more info). As I (and many others such as Libby Bateman, our local Digital Hero) have previously said, if back in 1867 they could build an entire railway, with mind-blowing viaducts and bridges, surely we can lay some 9 or 14mm fibre??
I proposed a solution at least 6 years ago to solve the Garsdale and Mallerstang problem, which revolved around the railway and the GX fibre plus wireless where the fibre dig was going to be prohibitively expensive - a few homes up Grisedale and a couple hidden from a wireless signal. As ever, the workable solution which involved the community and a little ingenuity was dismissed outright by the NWDA and a potential public, private, community partnership binned in favour of a purely private (but publicly funded) solution which subsequently has proven to be a waste of money. Sound familiar?
At the start of this week, one of the householders near the Mallerstang (which is very close to where Lambing Live was filmed last spring) rang asking if I had 270m of spare fibre or duct. I personally generally carry slightly less than this around in my pocket, so several unanswered calls later to suppliers and a chance conversation with Chris Conder (about where our lives were vanishing in helping solve problems for free when there are millions in the public purse to find solutions) tracked down some community owned armoured fibre. Within literally a few hours, that fibre had been purchased and was wending its way back to be laid in the ground within hours of that first call. No committees, no incomprehensible DEFRA forms, no negotiating with councils or BDUK, no State Aid concerns - just action. True JFDI, and the job is now done whilst the trench was open. Hours, not months or even years later.
On driving down the Mallerstang this evening, it became obvious how many of those disconnected properties are businesses, struggling like hell to survive off the natural tourist trail, far from services, on a road which I know from experience is often omitted from any gritting programme in winter, and yet who have created a diverse community with huge potential and initiative. The Digital Dales logo was created there by a brilliant graphic designer, there are B & Bs, holiday cottages, a company which makes cakes, an architect, forestry, and who knows what other exciting rural businesses. Oh yes, and farms. The lifeblood of rural communities.
What is being proposed for this and similar rural and remote communities to follow the unsuccessful wireless network and to regenerate this tiny but vital rural area? Well, until Rory Stewart and Tim Farron decided to throw their weight behind the rural mobile broadband need, it was satellite. In fact, it is only in the last few days and weeks that "hard to reach areas" in Cumbria even got a sniff at upgraded 3G and the 4G trials, and even now it seems that the pilot projects in Cumbria will be the first to benefit rather than those in most need like the Mallerstang, and the many similar valleys around rural England who currently have NOWT in the way of acceptable communications.
We all know that necessity is the mother of invention. We celebrate the Keep Calm and ... Bury Fibre mentality at every opportunity. Yet, we are failing to support the communities who can put this into action and create the reality which will change all of our lives. These communities can substantially reduce costs in fibre lay, and are willing to grant wayleave as long as the community retains ownership of that fibre and it is not gifted to some greedy corporate or similar who wishes to screw the community forever more. The benefits of community FTTH approaches are regularly and increasingly logged worldwide as THE SOLUTION. However, instead we would seem to prefer to create bureaucratic hurdles at every opportunity, hold infinite meetings, and relegate those furthest from civilisation and services to be "outsiders" for as long as possible.
Subjecting these people to the ignominy of being unable to access even the most basic of online services, let alone innovate and explore the potential of individuals, communities, businesses, is a cardinal and inexcusable sin that should cause sleepless nights (or, IMHO, far worse) throughout Westminster and every single 'corridor of power'. For the townies who think we all make lifestyle choices about where we live, these rural citizens have in many instances been residents for generations and are often as hefted ('heafed' or 'heughed' in my bit of the Dales) and are as vital to the well-being of the land as the sheep and walls and heather. Not transient but permanent. As old as t'hills, almost literally.
It is far beyond the time where thrifty communities and individuals should be allowed access to pots of money which telcos deem insufficient to even write a viability study or get out of bed for, let alone lay fibre and connect people, despite fast-growing proof that communities can JFDI with the money that is available, whilst telcos and local authorities simply cannot.