Broadband’s Next Big Step

At last. The broadband contract for Cumbria has been awarded. Good broadband and mobile coverage can transform farms and businesses, improve conditions for the isolated and the elderly, and much more. Nothing would make a greater single contribution to our economy, growth, or services. But it has been painfully difficult to deliver. Companies won’t do it on its own because traditionally they perceive remote rural areas as completely unprofitable. The cost of broadband is in laying infrastructure: so companies have concentrated on cities, where broadband companies have to pay to lay less for fibre, and where mobile phone companies have more people to cover the cost of each mast. Which is why, in 2010, we seemed to have worse broadband than Belarus, and worse mobile coverage than Mongolia.

Nor has the answer been communities alone. We are not yet at the dream of a universe of community-owned fibre. And no amount of using the fibre in primary schools, in the gas pipelines, and on the Carlisle-Settle Line, will change that situation. And the third player – the government – cannot afford to do it on its own. Laying fibre to every home in Britain would cost tens of billions. And if we relied on the traditional approach – seen in much smaller Cornwall, for example – 40 million pounds would probably leave ten per cent of Cumbrians without any improvement at all. And government is nervous of its relations with companies because of procurement regulations and state aid rules – and even more nervous of communities – who can be unpredictable, risky, and distracting partners in a big infrastructure project.

But although business, communities, and government can’t deliver rural broadband separately, they can together. That is the secret to the Cumbrian contract, and there are three reasons to be optimistic. First, companies are finally, it seems, changing their attitude to Cumbria. In the last year, BT has brought a major broadband upgrade to Penrith, and all the major mobile companies have launched free trials to show what they can provide –  Everything Everywhere with 4G in Threlkeld, 3 Mobile with a free superfast dongle project in Kaber, and – we hope – Vodafone with femto cells in Caldbeck. Second, the government is more focused: it has imposed tougher targets (it has increased the rural coverage obligation for all mobile telephone companies, from “95 per cent of people 90 per cent of the time”, to 98 per cent). And it has provided cash (the five hundred million for rural broadband has been supplemented with another 150 million for rural mobile masts). The County Council investment will be forty million pounds, and Cumbria has received more per capita for its broadband pilot than any other county.

But most importantly, we finally have a model for how communities can work in this new context. This is really Cumbria’s speciality. Years ago, Miles and others in Great Asby had worked out how to run broadband services off the local school system, Daniel of Alston’s CyberMoor was installing fibre-optic cable for much less money than BT, Chris was doing it herself. And in 2011, a hundred community enthusiasts had launched to develop new ideas, in astonishing technical detail: from employing unused radio spectrum in the Northern Fells, to creating a community-owned circuit in Lyvennet. But the real breakthrough happened this week near Kirkby Stephen.

Fell End is very remote and sparsely populated. The cost of laying fibre, the cost of paying way-leaves to land-owners, and the commercial risk of signing up enough customers, meant that in the past its broadband was completely unaffordable. But Libby and her team of volunteers have visited every home, to find out exactly what people wanted, and to encourage them to commit to broadband – and so made a business case, which BT would never have had the local knowledge to prove. She found a neighbour who could dig fibre, to the top professional standards, but at the fraction of the normal cost. And – because it is a local community scheme – landowners have agreed not to charge for permission to cross their fields.

There was a moment when I feared all this community effort would be wasted. But Bill Murphy, an American executive with BT, agreed to drop its price for Fell End from what threatened to be hundreds of thousands of pounds to 17,000 pounds. Mike Kiely, an Irish civil servant from London, miraculously inspired the officials to come out of the thicket of procurement regulations, and state aid paranoia, and find the funding so that, a week ago, Fell End became the first such project to be approved anywhere in the country.

Yesterday’s contract announcement means that Cumbria County Council are investing tens of millions into extending the main fibre-optic broadband network as deep and as far as possible, and BT have signed up to the new model – inspired by Mike’s work – of ‘build and benefit.’ We will have to watch and chase these giant players to ensure that they remain inventive, flexible and accommodating. We must hold them to their promise and make sure that they allow the most remote communities to link affordably and quickly into the fibre infrastructure. But Fell End has done it. We can all do it. And if we do, Cumbria will indeed win the best superfast rural broadband in Europe.


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