‘Build own’ broadband brings Britain’s communities together

Before Chris Conder’s village in northern England built its own broadband network, Internet speeds were so bad that children who went away to study would refuse to come home for the holidays.
Farmers had to travel to the nearest public library to apply for the agricultural subsidies they were entitled to, or to submit mandatory reports on their livestock to the government.
Now it has some of the best broadband speeds in Britain after villagers took matters into their own hands — part of a growing trend for community-owned networks run independently of the main providers.
“We can do without water and electricity and gas, which a lot of us do … You can be self-sufficient in the countryside, but you cannot generate broadband,” Conder said.
“It’s the one utility you can’t make yourself. We have found a way of joining our villages to the world.”
Conder now works with Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), which has the legal status of a social enterprise, meaning it is run for the benefit of the community.
B4RN provides broadband to rural villages in the north of England, offering Internet speeds hundreds of times faster than the national market leaders. It connected its first 1,000 homes in 2011 and now has about 5,000 customers.
Communities that want to be connected raise money for the infrastructure — the cables and server space — by buying shares in B4RN at 1 pound each and there is a minimum purchase of 100 shares, which can only be sold back to the company.
Anyone who wants a connection then pays a monthly fee of 30 pounds for the B4RN service.
Conder, a founding member of B4RN who was honoured by Queen Elizabeth in 2015 for her work connecting rural communities, said the social impact of the initiative had been far greater than the technical impact.
One of the biggest challenges, she said, was gaining access to government-owned land to lay the necessary cables, particularly around schools and community spaces.
“If we’d known how hard it was going to be and how many obstacles we’d have to overcome, we wouldn’t have done it,” said Conder, describing the authorities as “very, very obstructive”.
“50 megabits per second might have been adequate a few years ago, but it ain’t adequate now. The direction of travel is irreversible,” said Antony Townsend, one of the founders of Broadband for Surrey Hills.
— Thomson Reuters Foundation

Lee Mannion