Fast fibre: A community shows the way
Lancashire leads way on fast fibre connection
How fast is your home broadband? Seventy to 80 Mbps if you're one of the few
with the very fastest fibre broadband services? Perhaps 10Mbps if you've got
an average connection, maybe under 2Mbps if you live some miles from your
nearest exchange. So how would you fancy a 500Mbps download scheme?
That is what I've seen on Harry Ball's quite ancient computer - not in the
heart of London but in a village in rural Lancashire. Arkholme is hardly a
teeming metropolis but Harry is one of the first local residents to be hooked
up to the B4RN community broadband network.
After deciding that they were never likely to get a fast broadband connection
from one of the major suppliers, a group of local people across this sparsely
populated area decided that sitting around moaning about it was not an
option. Instead they began a DIY effort, digging channels across the fields
and laying fibre optic cables.
They have exploited all sorts of local expertise - from the Lancaster
University professor who is an expert in computer networks to the farmer's
wife who has just retired from a career in IT support. The cooperation of
local landowners has been vital - free access to fields has made it much
cheaper to roll out the network. BT and other companies which have to dig up
the country roads to lay fibre networks reckon it can cost as much as �10,000
to hook up one rural home - the people at B4RN reckon they can bring that
down to around �1,000.
And people like Harry and Susan Ball are now entering the superfast broadband
era. The retired couple told me they knew little about computers and had got
used to the fact that it was almost impossible on their slow connection to
watch video or use Skype. Now Harry is able to watch the iPlayer streaming in
HD, and Susan has become a B4RN volunteer, helping to dig trenches for the
But, after raising half a million pounds from locals who bought shares on the
promise of a fast connection, the project now needs to move to the next
stage. In the Arkholme village hall this afternoon, B4RN is holding an open
day, inviting anyone to drop in and test the broadband connection on their
phones or computers.
The hope is that many will sign up to the �30 per month service, but that
some will also buy shares in B4RN. Another �1.5m is needed if the full 265KM
network is to be rolled out. That sounds ambitious - but having spent 24
hours watching the volunteers digging trenches, blowing fibre and learning a
process called fusion splicing I can see they are a very determined bunch.
As Barry Forde, the networking expert who is the chief executive of B4RN
explained to me, fast broadband is not a luxury now, whether in the town or
the country. "Farmers are being told they have to fill in forms online," he
says. "If you haven't got broadband you are severely disadvantaged."
And despite the �530m government money to bring fast broadband to rural
Britain, many communities face a long wait to get connected. In the meantime,
others may learn the lesson from B4RN - if you want it in a hurry, just get
out and start digging.