Mapping Our Access To The Information Superhighway -Penrith And The Borders Broadband Conference Shows That We Really Can Connect Cumbria’s ‘Final Third’ To The High Speed Lanes – if community engagement is sufficiently enthusiastic.
For Rory Stewart’s Introductory Press Release to the conference please Click Here
For Rory Stewart’s Broadband Website with an increasing array of conference related resources please Click Here
PART I The Introduction and overview (first in a series written between bouts of Apple Juicing)
Living near Penrith as I do, I’m used to seeing grand visions in the Rheged Visitor Centre’s excellent Imax auditoria – super high definition (and 3D) films of Ancient Egypt, The Kingdom of Rheged, Rainforest life, The Himalayas and Dinosaurs being notable examples, but I scarcely hoped to see the complexity of connecting our remote rural communities to high speed broadband covered so comprehensively and with such clarity as I did yesterday. It’s an interesting observation that the very conditions that make high-speed connectivity rather tricky around here are the ones that make it so important – anything that facilitates business, education, social networking, security and telemedecine development in remote rural areas has got to be a very good thing. I, for one, am counting on Rory’s initiative to work – because I sell and maintain websites, I like them to be visually attractive and to load quickly for my customers and their customers. That’s me – always wanting the moon, but I was gratified to learn at Rheged yesterday that it wasn’t just me who wants this moon – the reason that the Cumbrian networks are slowing down is that we Cumbrians are heavy users. We are prosumers (producer/consumers) exchanging large files on a regular basis, slapping up our Youtube and lapping up our iplayer video, TV, movies and on-line gaming. The great advances that Cumbria made in first generation access (99% availability by 2008 according to Richard Walters, CEO of Commendium) are starting to feel ready to be expanded upon. It’s not just our younger end that are sucking up the bandwidth now – the silver-haired web surfers are increasing in number, and why not? There’s just as much for us all on the net – and traders are fully cognisant of where the greater spending power resides.
A glance at some of the name badges in the foyer confirmed that this was an event of consequence – Rory Stewart’s Broadband Conference had gathered key figures in Government, the private sector, Education and Cumbrian communities and even some American experts, including some of the worlds ‘black-belt’ gurus of high speed connectivity under one roof in an event that was as well-planned as it was smoothly executed. Rheged made a fine venue for the conference.
Now follows a very brief and consolidated digest of what ensued in the first part of the conference, written to the best of my understanding which is admittedly incomplete ( a great deal was said and most of it was new to me and weighty) – I’ll attempt to complete it in later articles and I’d welcome any additional information that will beef-up or correct my account where necessary.
Our MP kicked off the conference with a punchy welcoming address to prepare us for the day ahead – he reminded us of the growing necessity to provide all our communities with access to realistically affordable future-proof broadband for lasting prosperous regional, national and international interactivity. He stressed the crucial element of community involvement, and the ‘do-ability’ of the task despite the complexity of the issues. He promised to fight hard to facilitate community access to existing bandwidth through a shared enhancement of the CLEO fibre-optic network (established by CLEO from The University of Lancaster) via a Parish pump analogy. If government provides the green cabinets in the communities, it’s up to us to complete the last mile, i.e. get the fibre to our residences or to a transmitter that can send and receive wireless internet signals from devices in or on our homes and public buildings. He identified successful local models in the form of the Great Asby Broadband group and the Alston Cybermoor group and emphasised the likelihood of the need to employ multiple solutions within most communities. He also anticipated that things may become a bit heated at the conference as there are competing interests in terms of provision, but his hope that this wouldn’t become acrimonious was realised as speakers made their points positively and presented their own cases constructively. No mud was slung and at 5 o’clock I was impressed by the fact that it wasn’t all going to be about wires, fibres and fibre served wireless and that satellite will doubtlessly serve some remote homes, and if you are in one such now and you want your broadband very soon – then you may be prepared to pay the £25-£50 a month to secure a satellite service. For Next Generation Access by 2015 (speeds in the region of 50 to 100 Mbps that can handle anticipated future demands for very heavy data transfer) however, it is extremely likely that an optical fibre network will be doing the work.
Rory’s Introductory speech and speech by Ed Vaizey
Our Minister of Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey was the first guest speaker and he set the scene for us presenting a clear correlation between fast internet access and improved business and cultural activity. Referring to work that he had completed in a July 2010 consultation paper he stated that it was very necessary to open up existing public infrastructure in order to reach the government’s 2015 targets of universal service provision of Next Generation Access. He alluded to considerable spectra of unused bandwidth that could be efficiently used and the savings that could be achieved by communities laying their own fibre optic cables, costs of £120 per meter could be reduced to £20 per meter – and you’ve got local employment as a serendipitous spin-off. Shall we dig out our spades? Some of us can, others may prefer to hire a friendly neighbouring Farmer’s Mole plough. More on that in a later article!
Furthermore, he announced that some of the £200,000,000 ‘underspend’ that had been earmarked for the national digital TV switchover could be employed to Cumbria’s benefit in public-private partnerships if people in communities demonstrated sufficient enthusiasm and engagement. Eden’s relatively small population might reasonably expect help to the tune of about £4 or 5 million – which might be sufficient if we’re fully engaged, make the wisest decisions and do our bit.
We next heard from a series of expert panels who guided us through the fascinating areas of: existing coverage (patchy and unlikely to meet govt. targets without a major effort), rural needs (increasingly heavy) and the potential that the technology offers (quality-of-life altering). Broadband was introduced as a fourth utility – increasingly essential in modern life, soon to be seen as equally essential as piped water. In many areas, the number one concern after affordable housing, in others out-ranking affordable housing. Adrian Wooster (Director of JON Exchange) told us about ‘Not Spots’ (places with no broadband access) and ‘Grot spots’ (places with slow broadband access). A series of maps showed the low number of providers (Penrith had 2) and where fast internet could not be found in the constituency. Most of Eden was pictured in red with a series of green circles showing communities that had some broadband access. The needs for fast broadband hinged upon potential impacts on shopping for goods and services, lifelong learning, social networking, telemedicine, business communication and connection to services – 89% of government services are available on the internet currently. These needs and potentials were further expanded upon by successive speakers and will be covered in greater detail in Part Two. It was later apparent that some of the maps could already be updated (this showing the mercurial realities of the issue).
Adrian Wooster (Director of JON Exchange)
Dr. Stuart Burgess (Chairman of The Commission for Rural Communities)
William Davies (Vice President of Technology Policy Research In Motion)
BT’s Bill Murphy, the managing director of Next Generation Access BT described what BT has achieved so far (running 5500 exchanges nationwide, all but 26) serving millions of customers directly and millions more through 1400 communications providers) and what they hope to achieve yet through a £2.5 billion investment (the largest single private sector investment in broadband anywhere, ever), aiming for 70-80% coverage at 2Mbps or more by the end of 2012, and alluding to R&D in progress aiming for speeds of up to 40 Mbps over existing copper wire and hinting at hitherto untapped potentials in the use of Ethernet. Undoubtedly BT will be playing a part in speeding up connectivity for a lot of our communities, but what of the remaining 20-30% of people? And are they likely to be … you?
Bill Murphy, BT’s managing director of Next Generation Access BT
The problem of getting backhaul (the power to upload data back onto the internet) was examined next, and in detail. Many people feel that the big providers , BT and Virgin are understandably likely to be very preoccupied with speeding up services for our urban populace and our small remote communities are likely to remain in the slowest lanes of the superhighway. That’s been the pattern so far and the next speaker, Barry Forde (NGA advisor to the government and key brain behind the CLEO network for schools) explained why it was necessary to break with that pattern and how it could be done. He pointed out that though Eden is 97.5% rural with half our population living in small villages and hamlets (so we’re not all likely to be part of BT’s 70-80%), we are blessed with three potential sources of public access to the core internet via fibre-optic cables, the Network Rail optical fibre network that runs alongside the Carlisle Settle railway track, and the CLEO network – a very forward-thinking program to connect our schools (Primary at 10 Mbps and Secondary and higher at 100 Mbps) and finally our NHS medical centres at 100 Mbps. While it could cost upwards of £40,000 to get 100Mbps backhaul independently, it would cost very much less to connect to the existing infrastructure provided that it was opened up. He advocated liberating that potential in unused bandwidth and sharing the costs in return for the access – boosting up the Primary schools’ backhaul to 100Mbps and sharing that cost with the local community users, tapping in to the Network rail and NHS networks too where that was feasible and likewise defraying costs. He was very persuasive and witty.
Barry Forde (NGA advisor to the government and key brain behind the CLEO network for schools)
Rory Stewart pointed out the usefulness of overlaying the maps that had been shown so far, so that we could all see how this was all fitting together.
I shall continue this account and tell you some of what the following speakers said in part 2 on another day.