Europe’s Fastest Rural Broadband Network? British Farmers Are Digging It

WHO has the fastest internet connection speeds in Europe? At country level it is the Dutch, with the fastest average speeds of 22Mbps, according to network analyst Akamai’s new State of the Internet report.

But are there any continentals outperforming a small farming community in England’s rural northwest county of Lancashire, whose fibre-to-the-home network,Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), runs at speeds in excess of 1,000Mbps? Yes, a Gigabit per second.
While most commercial ISPs talk about ‘superfast broadband’, the folks at B4RN are ‘hyperfast broadband enabled’. And what makes that status even more satisfying is that they, the local farmers, small business owners, and village residents, built the network themselves.

How they achieved it is a triumph of social enterprise, human endeavour and community spirit. Stuck on the wrong side of the rural/urban divide, the broadband ‘have and have nots’, evident in every country in the civilised world, and frustrated by the certainty that neither the government nor the incumbent telecommunications company would be rolling out high speed broadband to their remote and sparsely populated corner of the county any time soon, they picked up their spades, rolled up their sleeves and started digging their own.

In less than two years they have dug and laid 520km – 323 miles – of fibre optic cable – equivalent to the distance between Hadrian’s Wall and the English Channel – connected hundreds of properties in the tiny villages within a 430 sq km (166 sq mile) area,  and perhaps, most importantly, brought the area’s farms and small businesses into the digital age with a connection speed that most urban internet users can only envy.

B4RN begins its ‘Dig for a Gig’ in March 2012

They were also fortunate in that the technical expertise required for their audacious community project was readily available in the shape of Barry Forde, one of the UK’s leading network designers, who also happened to live within the B4RN boundaries.

How does it work? The B4RN network connects to the internet via a leased dark fibre link – fibre optic cable which is in the ground, but not currently in use, to a peering centre Manchester. Fully built out, the total cost is £3.8 million, ($6.9 million) the first £1 million of which was also a DIY effort. B4RN set up a not-for-profit share scheme, opening the share issue three months before digging commenced. Shares qualified for 30% tax relief under the UK’s EIS scheme, and people could buy them for cash or for ‘sweat equity’ in return for digging trenches.

But the physical building of the network, digging trenches and laying ducting in torrential rain,  across miles of waterlogged fields, to the door of each property, was down to a volunteer manpower; the farmers, business professionals, and residents, who watched, learned and passed their new skills on to each other.

B4RN is making slow but steady progress towards its target of connecting 3,500 properties, but it has radically transformed the way that local businesses operate and compete.

Brian Acott’s energy consultancy Utiliz, is one of several home-based businesses in the area that two years ago was struggling to survive on connection speeds of 0.5Mbps or less. He could send emails and browse simple websites, but that was about it. And as file sizes increased, and web content became richer, communicating with clients online became virtually impossible and his business was under threat.

By connecting to B4RN, which he also helped to dig, download speeds of well over 700 Mbps provide him with instant access to video conferences, webinars, and large data transfers.

“It has given my business a new lease of life,” says Acott.

Before the arrival of B4RN in his village of Gressingham, local commercial film maker John Hamlett could expect the transmission of a few MBs of video footage to his clients for approval to take all night at dial up connection speed. If the transmission was interrupted, as frequently happened, it would take him two nights. Now a three hour video file can be with a client in minutes.

The service isn’t even expensive; £150 ($244) installation fee and £30 ($48) per month for B4RN subscribers.

This isn’t a technology story. It isn’t even a business story. It is an extraordinary people story.

Vice President of the European Commission Neelie Kroes is passionate about getting every European digital and  covered by fast broadband connections. She cited the economic benefits; increasing broadband penetration by just 10 percentage points can boost GDP by 0.9% to 1.5%, but highlighted the barriers; insufficient investment, problems in accessing capital, and a weak business case for commercial operators to roll out everywhere.

Farmer and B4RN co founder Christine Conder said: “B4RN is proof that if communities want to invest their time and energy they too can have gigabit connectivity at an affordable price. Empowering people to help themselves will drive innovation, create new jobs and regenerate the rural economy.”

A spokesman from the UK’s biggest telco BT questioned B4RN’s long term viability and sustainability. What B4RN is doing is epic, but can they achieve the extras, he asked?

With connection speeds almost a hundred times faster than most European national averages, B4RN might argue that its network and the community of social entrepreneurs that created it, are indeed future proof.

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