Fibre-to-the-home in the UK is a subject that typically generates a lot of heat but not much light. So it’s with much pleasure that I find myself writing about a fibre project in the UK that’s actually come to fruition. I am of course talking about Ashby de la Launde.
Ashby is a village in rural Lincolnshire of just 63 homes and 3 small businesses. But while the village is tiny, it’s probably got the fastest broadband network of any community in the UK with 1Gbps connections between properties within the village itself and a 100Mbps symmetric fibre connection to the outside world.
The first customers were connected to Ashby’s network last week, thanks to the hard work of community broadband firm Nextgenus, with a little help (and some hindrance) from BT, who supply the 100Mbps fibre connection to what’s been christened the digital village pump.
The digital village pump concept is about providing a high-speed fibre connection into a village, which terminates in a mini data centre owned and managed by the local community. Nextgenus reckons this concept could be extended to bring high-speed broadband to the whole of the Final Third – and the firm was prepared to invest its own money in Ashby de la Launde to prove that the business model works.
Fibre advocates will already be familiar with the £28.8bn figure to give the UK nationwide FTTH, which works out at an average cost of about £1116 to connect a single property with fibre, and considerably more in rural areas. The business case simply doesn’t stack up, unless you do something dramatic to change the equation.
In the case of Ashby a couple of things helped to change the economics. First was the commitment from the local community. In the words of Guy Jarvis, managing director of Nextgenus, there was “an absolute need and requirement to have decent connectivity”. This much was evident from the public meetings in the village hall, which drew the bigggest crowd ever seen, including people from the surrounding villages, he says.
In a few short months between March and May, all but literally one or two home owners had decided to support the project and had signed up for services. “There were four locations that we couldn’t immediately get fibre to because of some issues to do with crossing people’s land, which is something we will resolve over time,” Guy told me.
To help keep costs down, Nextgenus asked the villagers to dig their own trenches for the fibre – an idea that’s already been done in rural Sweden. But this activity was about more than saving money; it’s very much about people actively engaging in the community to make things happen. “It’s about people having an emotional bind to the project as well,” explained Guy. “Everybody remembers the day when they dug across their own gardens.”
But even with this level of local support, the network needed to be larger if it was to be self supporting in the longer term. “What we needed to do was to get into the low hundreds in actual uptake in terms of the total solution, and this is where fibre and wireless comes into it,” said Guy, referring to the decision to connect nearby villages using wireless technologies.
The wireless network, which provides broadband at speeds of around 30Mbps up and down, has brought a further 2,000 homes into the catchment area of the network, of which about 400 have signed up for services. Over time, the links to wireless nodes within those villages will be replaced with fibre, and ultimately Nextgenus hopes, under its social enterprise remit, to reinvest the profits to give everyone a full fibre solution.
It will be very interesting to see how this pans out and whether Nextgenus can extend its model to other communities. I wish them lots of luck – although I hope they don’t need it.