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Saturday, 9 July 2011

Is Cumbria JFDI? Part 1

Spent most of yesterday at Stoneybeck Inn near Penrith at a community and suppliers day organised by East Cumbria Community Broadband Forum (ECCBF) and BDUK, and MCed by Rory Stewart and Libby Bateman. I'm not sure what the other BDUK recipient areas are doing, and would welcome updates from anyone who is aware of the forward motion elsewhere, but here is a summary of yesterday in the Cumbria Community broadband world.

This blog post can be read at

 It may be a recession, but many community people managed to take a day away from work to partake in this event. There were also a substantial number of supplier representatives there, whose offerings range from the whole caboodle through to component parts or services, including BT, Fujitsu, Cable and Wireless, MiniFlex, AFL, Commendium, NextGenUs, Ericsson, and included the majority of those on the procurement short list. Cumbria County Council and CLEO were also represented.

My overall impression is that these structured yet informal events not only bring out the best in people, (as do the colloquia) but also see far more forward motion than a simple talking heads do, such as the vast majority of conferences end up being. Without being party to many of the commercially sensitive discussions which were undoubtedly ongoing during the event, it seemed that the sales pitches went far beyond "this is our standard offering" because the communities have well-developed visions of precisely what their communities want. There is going to have to be a shift towards the centre ground, of compromise, and this event definitely seemed to be pushing things in the right direction by both 'sides'.

Thinking of it is as "them and us" (suppliers and communities) is however inappropriate as it is clearly obvious that what are being developed are partnerships. BDUK and the County Council have made it clear that suppliers are going to have their work cut out ensuring that whatever is delivered involves the communities to whatever level each community wishes to be involved. Whilst what is being built must be commercially sustainable, it also has to suit the communities at least as much as it suits the suppliers. Collaboration and co-operation are the watchwords here.

So, the suppliers, including BT, were "harangued" in the nicest possible way by Rory Stewart MP to contribute, talk to the communities represented, and work together towards the common goal that is next gen broadband across Cumbria using the recently announced £16.4M, the immense goodwill and passion exhibited at Rheged, Great Asby and other recent events, as well as the existing assets in Cumbria, such as CLEO (the education network).

Several communities had been chosen to give updates on their progress and outline their thinking, both to share what was being considered around the county and also to assist the suppliers in considering where and how they could assist in achieving the goals being set by the communities. Fibre GarDen, Great Asby, Eden Valley Digital, Grange and Cartmel LAP, and Northern Fells all gave presentations.

Different scenarios were defined prior to the meeting:

  • The quest for community backhaul solutions
  • Solutions for demand aggregation
  • Build and Benefit schemes
  • Community Data Books
For many, the backhaul issue is still one of the most thorny. Cost by length, firstly, means that for many rural communities the cost of even a limited feed can be exorbitant. The difference in cost between a 100Meg feed and a 1Gig feed is actually minimal, but for most communities the cost of such a feed means the business plan is unnecessarily hard to resolve. Backhaul players need to start thinking more clearly about whether they want one big customer - a community, or no customer at all.

Obvious solutions are using existing feeds in the community - NHS, public sector, schools, libraries etc, but once again we are back to a medley of red herrings - security, contract will not permit sharing, and general faffing by telcos who sometimes would seem to prefer that half the country remains disconnected rather than think out of the box and use existing capacity with a novel approach. 

There are other solutions which were mentioned at more length in the networking sessions e.g. railways - Network Rail, Global Crossing, and smart grid solutions using assets of Electricity North West. The difficulties with all of these seem to be completely surmountable IF the above companies and organisations stop prevaricating and help solve the problems. Doing so would create win-win situations all round, and it is time for these bodies to get with IT and get out from behind the buffers. Network Rail should remember who paid for the fibre assets on the railway line in the first place!! Joined up thinking is not that difficult and many of the problems the larger organisations cannot see solutions to simply require a brief chat with one of the many community people who have thought through all the possible solutions to assess the best approach.

Much more to say, so am going to write this as a multi-part post. (And hope that Blogger's photo app starts working again before I finish!

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