Government "holding back rural fibre rollouts"

Rural network claims the Government is hampering - not helping - rural broadband projects

Stewart Mitchell
16 Mar 2012

A community-based broadband project has said red tape and the wait for Government funding is slowing down the rollout of faster services in Britain.

The Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) project has raised enough money from local people buying shares in its 1Gbit/sec fibre network, and is about to start its first dig.

The process has taken 18 months, while the majority of major projects run by local authorities under the Broadband Delivery UK scheme - which holds £530 million of public funds - are still in the early planning stages.

Only 11 of the major regional schemes are even in the procurement process. Many are waiting for approval for the projects before funding is allocated, while the majority of regions have only just submitted project outlines.

Local authorities are so risk adverse that community projects frighten them and 'no one got sacked for buying IBM' is their philosophy

“I think this is why we have been able to move rapidly, we don’t have to hang around all the time waiting on some mirage of public funding which always seems to be just out of reach,” said Barry Forde, CEO of B4RN.

“All the other projects are based on BDUK or DEFRA or local authority funds being the key source and, of course, none of these has materialised.”

Instead of waiting for public money, the project – which once won and lost a grant when it was subsumed into funding for Lancashire's BDUK rollout – relies on shares sold to locals who will benefit from the network.

As we have reported before, private funding may be the only way to finance local projects, with public money going towards mainstream companies such as Virgin, Fujitsu and, particularly, BT.

“I really don’t believe that any of the community groups will get any significant funding from the public sources as it’s become a straight canter down the track for BT with them winning every county tender,” Forde said. “Local authorities are so risk adverse that community projects frighten them and 'no one got sacked for buying IBM' is their philosophy.”

Ready to roll

According to Forde, the B4RN project has sold enough shares to buy the equipment for its initial phase, and the dig, being undertaken by volunteers who benefit from the project, will start at the end of the month, with the first fibre light-up and backhaul switch-on expected within three months.

Without public funding, B4RN needed to persuade the community that the project was credible and wouldn't be a waste of money, which meant building a team with mixed skills, from finance to technical.

“£1,500 per family is a big ask and whilst many want to support such a community project they don’t want to feel the risk of throwing their money away is high,” said Forde. “Project credibility is key to raising funds and support from the community.”

Size matters

While it is unrealistic to imagine large-scale regional projects to be as flexible as smaller local schemes, Forde stressed that the B4RN network was big enough to be viable, which made it different to some parish-level schemes.

“Too many community projects are too small to succeed,” he said. “To offer quality broadband, you need the backhauls, peering and carrier-grade kit in the right places," Forde said. "This sets a floor for costs below which you cannot go without losing quality and losing credibility.

“My view is that 1,500 properties is the lowest level [that can support a rollout], with 2,000 to 2,500 more comfortable. Allowing for an initial 50% take up that gives you the revenue you need to be viable."

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