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 Broadband Website with an increasing array of conference related resources Please Click Here
Many, many thanks to our citizen reporter John Popham for filming and mounting his video on Youtube
PART IV Building Community Broadband (fourth in a series written between bouts of Apple Juicing)
Having reinforced the crucial importance that broadband is thought to have in providing a prosperous future for society and telling us about some recent and ongoing American innovations, the expert American guest speakers yielded the podium to loud applause followed by another panel of British experts for the “Community Build Out” part of Rory Stewart’s conference. In this section we were shown demonstrative examples of Community Broadband projects, Big Society solutions to bridge the high speed broadband gap.
Malcolm Corbett, Chief Executive of Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) spoke first. INCA was established to bring together the many diverse broadband initiatives that are taking place, to ensure that common standards of practice are being followed, to make sure that islands of non-connectivity don’t exist, to look at the development of common services and to promote the whole sector by organising conferences nationwide, such as a forthcoming one in Cumbria that’s scheduled for November. He began by talking about the impact that people can have in their local communities, his first slide showed words associated with Jeremy Hunt’s website organised in what is known as a ‘category cloud’ with key words shown relatively larger or smaller according to their frequency of use within the website. Malcolm noted that Broadband and local stood out prominently and this represents its perceived importance to the government’s aim to have the best superfast broadband infrastructure in Europe within the space of this parliament, without having to put a huge amount of money behind that commitment. Malcolm declared INCA’s support of that aim and reiterated the position that the big providers, BT Open reach, Virgin Media and Kcom(based in Hull) are not going to be able to connect all of Great Britain’s “final third”and described the new situation using the analogy of a patchwork quilt of provision across the country involving lots of different local solutions.
This complex patchwork is constantly updating as new community projects and private initiatives launch across the country. He noted that valuable lessons are already emerging about what works best in different places. He emphasised the diversity of partners and perspectives and said that we can learn from all this to help us roll-out broadband quickly and effectively in Cumbria.
He focused on some example projects:
First, was the community of Skellefteå in Northern Sweden, with a population of 70,000, widely dispersed, 10 people per square Km, where 80% of people have fibre connections. This was achieved by working with a local utility company that dug in and lit the fibre and the community that sorted out the administration and financing, commitment coupled with creativity achieved success there.
Secondly, he looked at GEO’s Fibrespeed project in North Wales, where a partnership between the Welsh Assembly Government and Geo, a private enterprise provided high speed fibre connection to 14 business parks on an open access basis (they can choose their Internet Service Providers) to boost economic growth there at the same prices that people are paying in the South East.
His third example was the South Yorkshire Digital Region, a public sector funded project intended to prevent further economic decline in the region by running fibre to 54 exchanges, and 15,000 street cabinets effectively connecting over half a million people to high speed broadband.
He finished off his speech by noting the huge amount of energy embodied in the Rheged conference audience and speakers to address the broadband expansion issue and welcomed the next speakers who were leading their own community-based projects to loud applause.
Malcolm Corbett, Chief Executive of Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA)
The first of whom was Lindsey Annison. Lindsey lives in Warcop, is a web consultant and author, and was one of the first in Britain to set up an internet marketing company. She lived up to her promise to be diplomatic and delivered a lively and interesting account of her local initiative to connect 110 households with Optical Fibre To The Home (OFTTH) in Warcop. This topic is covered in far greater detail in her new paperback book JFDI Community Broadband , probably essential reading for rural communities who want to start up their own fast broadband project. You might also be interested in her other books.
Fifteen years ago, frustrated by the limitations of dial-up, Lindsey sought the fastest technology then available, a T1 line, and many thought her “completely mad” to be so eager for more speed than they could conceive back then that anyone would need, she now feels totally vindicated as people are beginning to recognise that in many areas of the country fast broadband access is the “biggest issue now even above affordable housing”. Fifteen years after her start-up her children have now grown and moved away in order to study the subjects that most interest them, she suspects that they may never return, and might be part of a generation lost to Cumbria that need not have been if such courses could have been taught extramurally from the college or university. Fast broadband would certainly enable both remote group and individual tutorials, large file transfers and even live feed or recorded video lectures. Students could conceivably take their 9 o’clock lecture in bed, or at 1 o’clock for that matter. One day fairly soon, it may be feasible to enroll and sit examinations at a local academy and pursue course modules and receive tuition from other ones entirely! The internet nullifies distance, digital publishing vastly magnifies access to research resources and introduces great leverage through economy of scale. The fourth utility indeed! But I digress.
Lindsey then shared her experience of establishing a community broadband network in her village of Warcop to enable possible replication within our own local communities. She first explained the Warcop context; while the village is made up of 110 homes, there are about 300 altogether throughout the Parish. Warcop has a history of innovation. Something in the water you might be thinking? Maybe so, because two doors down from Lindsey lived Ted Stone, later Lord Glenamara, the former head of Marconi, a man of great perspicacity who turned a small-pox crisis into the opportunity to bring renewably sourced electricity to local homes, watch the video below to hear how Warcop village enjoyed electric lighting before the City of Manchester did! In short, he jfdi!
She wants our communities to do the same with broadband; she talked about Rory Stewart’s plan to introduce digital village pumps, saying thats what we need, the fat pipe into the village that we can all connect to either through Fibre To The Home or Fi-wi (Fibre wireless) depending upon the location of each home. She anticipates problems with the NGA terminology (describing 10, 40 and 100 Mbps speeds) because some people already have 1 gigabit per second connectivity and our rural areas are looking a bit ‘third world’ in comparison. She quipped that we should really discard the terms megabits and megabytes (as they cause confusion) and instead think in terms of enabling megabuckets! She produced a tea cup and a bucket and stressed the need for communities to make a future-proof investment and not to be short-termist and aim for a tea-cup when our children and theirs will be needing bucket-sized broadband access.
She then raised the point that in the interim period, before people in remote homes can get their megabuckets, for those people who need access to broadband right now, it is already possible for them to enjoy satellite service provided by firms like Beyond DSL. The people using wireless internet at the conference did so courtesy of joint provision from Beyond DSL (who’d fixed up two 4 Mbps satellite dishes on Rheged’s roof) and Nextgenus (who provided the wireless transceivers).
When, with the aid of American Consultant Tim MacNulty , she assessed the projected cost of connecting every person in Eden with FTTH they arrived at a figure of about £1000 per person, so over £50,000,000. Break this figure down over a period of 20 years though and you’re looking at £50 per year or just £1 per week – certainly not out of reach. She’s thinking in terms of ” a fiver to the home”. If, as has been suggested, the average household saves between £600 and £700 per year from being online, and if teleconferencing with a hospital specialist could help extend your life or the life of your loved ones, then it is obviously a good deal for you, factor in potential savings from the County Council, NHS and our education system and the financial argument for everybody to be on fast broadband becomes simply imperative. We need to flip our perception of the issue to reflect the reality that it’s really expensive not to have fast broadband.
Lindsey then shared her wish list. She would like to see:
- Proper cooperation from everybody – she stressed that there’s a piece of this pie for everybody.
- A five year waiver on the fibre tax. It is inhibiting development.
- Access to existing infrastructure.
- Affordable prices.
- Symmetrical service ( equally high powered upload and download)
- She wants us to expand broadband connectivity in “the final third” first. “The further away I live from services, the more I need the internet.” The argument that remote areas are in most need of connection is a compelling one.
She argues that “we need Fibre To The Home or Fi-Wi, if we have to do Fibre To The Cabinet, then at least make it part of an upgrade path.” She feels that “the killer ap is already here” in the form of social networking and that as we get more tools (live video streaming was introduced very recently on Youtube) there will be ever more extremely heavy utilisation of bandwidth.
She completed her speech by answering the 1997 question “Who’s going to pay for my internet super driveway?” she argues that we will, that we should stop just talking about it and JFDI! Loud applause ensued.
Daniel Heery of Cybermoor was next to speak and he did his best to condense ten years of work into ten minutes of speech to give us an overview of how Community broadband has been successfully deployed in the Alston area by his organisation. At the start of his presentation he asked the audience whether we felt that we could enable NGA in Eden District and about a third of the hands were raised.
Daniel identifies three distinct phases in any project to bring NGA to your community.
1) Establishment of Community Support
2) Organisation of the finances
3) Selection of technology and related services
He stressed that these processes are not straightforward, you get so far and then in light of developments have to take a few steps back, he likens the process to a game of Snakes and Ladders. For example, imagine that you organise a meeting to establish support for a community broadband project, lots of people turn up, excitement rises and everybody leaves fired-up with enthusiasm. Then a few days later a newspaper publishes an infomercial saying that a large Telecoms provider is planning to run a pilot technology program in the area ‘soon’. What happens? The enthusiasm that your meeting generated is eroded as people say,”Well, lets put the community project on hold for a bit and wait and see what BadgerTelecom has to offer.” Your project slips down the snake, you have to regroup and start again.
Then there are also snakes on the financial organisation side, say you’ve been approved a large grant and that’s great, but you have to produce match funding generated from your community, that will take something of an act of faith. Someone (who is unlikely to have a complete grasp of all the technological aspects involved) has to sell the idea of the community paying up front for something that promises to pay dividends later. Deferred reward can be a tough thing to sell and personal exposure to risk is always uncomfortable.
In the technology selection phase, one possible snake could be that even if your excellent MP has opened access to the CLEO or NHS network, it could be the case that your Council has outsourced its IT matters to some private company that will seize the chance to ask for unreasonable charges for access to infrastructure that is publicly funded, or that they don’t want to let an unregulated Community body access the resource.
These are the sort of problems that we can anticipate in our own Community led initiatives – Daniel advises us to expect that things won’t be as straightforward as we might hope at the outset, but being forewarned is to be forearmed and Alston’s Cybermoor project is living proof that a good result can be achieved with perseverance and above all, diplomacy. Daniel stresses the need to remain diplomatic, because you never know whether you’ll have to return to some organisation who may have frustrated you earlier and ask them to cooperate in some other fashion in which they might very willingly oblige you. His motto is keep everybody on board.
What does each Community need to make this work? You need a core team of enthusiastic people (not necessarily all technologically knowledgeable), some ‘doers’ and some ‘talkers’ as well who can tell everybody what’s happening and you need technical input. Daniel says that it has been interesting with these projects that 90% of the early discussion is technology focused and about 10% is focused on the politics of it and how its all going to work, and then at the end of the project upon reflection you see that 90% of the time has been expended upon working out how it is all going to work and managing people’s expectations and that the technology has been the relatively easy part of it. Daniel stresses that experienced help is at hand, Cybermoor can provide some help to communities that would like it.
He notes the three key ingredients that have contributed to Cybermoor’s success: Innovation, delivery and inspiration.
Innovation is about taking the ideas that people are talking about and putting them to work for your community to deliver the service. Financial innovation is about raising the money on the Community side and involves some lateral thinking. It’s very important to turn the ideas into a visible reality on the ground that confirms to people that it’s really happening. The promises must translate into real delivery, or unhappy customers will make their feelings felt in no uncertain terms. The final ingredient of inspiration, comes from perseverence and harnessing energy, creativity and enthusiasm and showing others what can be achieved. The Alston Community isn’t very large (about 2,500 people), but when Cybermoor harnessed their ideas, energy and enthusiasm they could achieve a huge amount. They are very keen to share their ideas with everybody and Daniel extended an invitation to welcome everybody to come and see what they’re doing at the beginning of December .
More details on that will follow.
Nicholas James, CEO of UK Broadband spoke next and he began by saying that he and Daniel represent something of a double act, if Cybermoor can be seen as a local facilitator, someone who’s done it before, can talk you through it, even build a network and manage it for you, then UK Broadband (the single largest holder of commercial spectrum in the UK) can be seen as the other part in the equation, a new (2010) national provider of backhaul, with 130 MHz of contiguous spectrum capable of rolling out 4G services in addition to lots of other spectrum, providing businesses that can’t access ‘fat pipe’ (core internet speed optical fibre) with wireless backhaul of up to 100 Mbps! Next year, new technology will enable speeds of up to 1 Gbps! He asks us to think of them as providing wireless fibre. This has only just become available recently. UK Broadband sees itself as a national supplier that serves a regional solutions provider that serves local community projects. It is currently doing some work with Daniel in Weardale, and working with people like Daniel in Teesdale, parts of north Wales and various other places.
Nicholas then talked about the expansion of Broadband UK’s 4G (Fourth Generation) Wireless data networks. He told us that the key advantage of 4G is that it’s really the first IP Wireless technology, in other words its wireless protocols connect directly with the core internet at full speed.
Starting this year UK Broadband is building 4G data networks including a test program with the NHS that will enable e-health care provision, health care workers can go out into the community in Glasgow, see patients and access the servers back in the hospitals without having to go physically back and forth. This is the beginning of what will be a more widespread projection of health care into the community. Experimental programs in Birmingham and some London Boroughs with local councils are currently exploring ways in which these authorities can save money, ‘spend to save’ incentives are likely to drive the expansion of 4G data networks. Local councils will be increasingly encouraged to adopt wireless data networks to optimise their efficiency.
For us, it means that if we wanted to connect our communities to a 4G wireless network today, at speeds of between 4 and 10Mbps, we can. This can be increased later, as there is a future-proof development path. Nicholas says that there are currently about 500 4G networks in use worldwide. UK Broadband is selling a package through regional service providers like Cybermoor called 4G in a box. It contains everything you need to get your local network established and they’re prepared to deliver this “at cost” and on a revenue share basis if necessary. Nicholas pledged to make his whole spectrum available to the people of Cumbria, alongside the advantage of scale and his expertise, just the sort of pledge that our MP was hoping to obtain for us on the day. He said that while 4G isn’t the only solution, and fibre is a viable alternative in many cases, we should remember the distinct advantages of mobile access. Looking at Asian models, he says it is the mobile access to the internet that is serving as the main economic driver, the trend is that TV is merging with the internet, 50% of people in Hong Kong get their TV entirely via the internet, that’s where we are heading. Nicholas emphasized that a wireless element should be considered in community schemes if we want to truly connect them with the rest of the world. We should avoid installing an incomplete solution. His age advice was “If you build anything today allow it to move forward”, if you put Wimax in today, or LTE make sure that your vendors are tied in to deliver you an upgrade option to LTE advanced in the package, or that they are obliged to pay the penalty of swapping it out in the future.
Nicholas reminded us briefly about Daniel’s advice on getting the community activated, then focused upon what you need to think about using a model practical solution for an example community in Eden – he had worked up a hypothetical solution for Gamblesby. His advice came thick and fast. “You need to think about how to engage the community, yes, but more importantly how to engage the community down the road, because the chances are that your solution can help provide their solution.” “Plan for fixed and wireless broadband, and for some additional 3G and make sure that your wireless network supports roaming service” this is because you’ll want to be able to use it with equal facility in the next village or in London. The wireless aspect needs to be part of a national tie-up. Your solution needs to be open and competitive to allow different services through it. You can put a service at the end of it, but you have to allow others to do the same in order to keep prices competitive and to allow diverse direct content provision. You have to think separately about the broadband service you’re delivering and the backhaul. The backhaul is likely to be subsidised by public money and must remain open – but your community can decide who is to use it and how much they should pay for the privilege. (NB the community scheme can thus contribute financially to your community coffers) Try to retain control of the flow of income from backhaul.
Looking at Nicholas’s Gamblesby case scenario, it assumes they have little to no ADSL , 80 households, one non-farming business and 206 outlying farms. (207 businesses, thank you Lindsey)
He and Daniel worked up this hypothetical solution, see image below.
A lot of the time, the customers would get more than 4 Mbps and its upgradable to 20Mbps. In parts of Germany Vodafone is offering up to 70Mbps through LTE advanced, so that confirms the need to have a cheaply and easily upgradeable service. There’s no church, and no fibre, so a pole is required and BT wireless ethernet is used for the backhaul in several hops, including one to the top of Fiend’s Fell!
What do customers need to connect?
Customers have a choice of installing indoor wireless modems or Mobile hotspot units for use indoors or to take with them for mobile use. For the outlying community – there are exterior mounted subscriber units to put on chimneys. You can also use USB dongles and Mi-Fi devices, Nicholas rates the Mi-Fi as better performers.
He moved on to a break down of costs. Assuming a 50% uptake, 148 households with a subsidy of £475 per household for installation, the annual cost of the service would be £98 annually, (so there’s scope for a profit margin on a monthly charge of £10, some of which should be banked to pay for future upgrades) in addition customers would pay for their personal equipment, modem, Mi-Fi unit or USB dongle. A local provider like Daniel could charge for use of the equipment on a monthly basis (funded by UK broadband) and there’d be a small margin of profit there too. These costs don’t reflect what Daniel would make on top.
Now compare that slide above with the one below, a cost estimate with some economy measures applied. The prices look far more attractive. If we could sign up more customers, and if we used a Church spire so we didn’t need a 12 m pole, and if we had another source for the backhaul and so didn’t need to use the BT one, and if we didn’t need two hops for backhaul and if we shared the costs of backhaul with the nearby community of Melmerby and if we put a bit more 3G into the village and then rented backhaul to mobile phone operators then we might bring the costs down as the above slide shows. With a 60% take up the £475 start-up cost per household is reduced to £292 and the operating expenses could fall to £2 per household per month. If you charged £10 or £12, then you will be able to bank the rest to pay for the future upgrade and any repairs or to contribute to defraying other community costs like heating, lighting and insuring public buildings.
It’s possible to roll out a Wireless network very quickly, he concluded – if you wanted this in Gamblesby you could have it set up within three months. You could start your project with wireless initially to get it up and running fairly quickly and then swap it out with fibre connections later. (This is the plan in Great Asby)
The final speaker Chris Conder, advisor on Community broadband, treated us to a video of her ‘fibre dig’ and it speaks for itself, very eloquently, on how she arranged Fibre To The Home, in this case a 1693 home (it was the first DigitalBritain Fibre To The Home Installation) and to a nearby farm in Wray, in May 2009. In all 1.2 km of 12 core fibre was lain over a period of 18 hours by a digger crew, Fibrestream (who brought the fibre and Lucid (who lit it). Chris says they wanted fibre, they JFDI and so can we!
The above video indicates how fibre could be laid from one of Rory Stewart’s green cabinet ‘parish pumps’ to your home or farm, and it shows just how little disturbance of the ground is involved. The Mole plough digs the trench so deep that the soil above the fibre and green warning tape can be ploughed. They make the process look distinctly feasible.
I hope that this report has made sense so far, if not the videos should help clarify matters. I shall cover the final part of the conference “The Action Plan and Conclusion in Part 5 of this series soon.