Broadband project B4RN made a little bit of history today when it launched a share offer. The project promoters want to raise £1.86m to lay optical fibre that will provide 1Gbps broadband to homes in the deeply rural uplands of Lancashire.
To get to this point, B4RN asked people living in the project area to register their interest in getting hooked up to a new fibre network. The business plan depends on at least 50% of residents being prepared to pay £30 per month to receive an ultrafast broadband connection. The registration scheme launched in July and by the end of November had over 700 sign-ups: and B4RN was go!
In Phase I of the project, money raised by the share offer will be used to connect 1452 homes across nine parishes. Some have questioned whether such a small project really matters. But CEO of B4RN Barry Forde, who has spent the last two years putting the plans together, set them straight immediately. “It does matter; in fact it’s life or death for the countryside,” he told the launch meeting at the Storey Arms in Lancaster this afternoon.
The risk of leaving rural areas without adequate broadband provision is that all the jobs are sucked away into the cities. Communities will be left without essential services, both as a direct result of not having access to the Internet, and as an indirect consequence of the slow exodus of people and skills, he says.
Few people can doubt the truth of this statement, yet the problem of delivering rural broadband remains very much unsolved at the present time. BT is rolling out superfast broadband across the UK, but the catch is that they are only going to reach two-thirds of the country with their own money. The government has made another £530M available to expand superfast broadband coverage to 90% or maybe a little more. But both government and industry say the remaining 10% of homes are too expensive to serve.
“The state piggy bank is empty, there are a lot of conflicting demands on government cash, so it’s down to us guys,” said Forde. “The only way that we’re going to get superfast broadband in rural communities is if we get together and make it happen.”
Forde and the rest of the B4RN team think they can build a fibre network for a lot less than any of the big telecoms firms by exploiting the distinctive features of the countryside – soft earth and a strong community spirit. They want to create a network that’s built by the community, owned by the community, for the community. And they say that they will “move heaven and earth to make sure that money spent on the [B4RN] subscription gets spent again in the community.”
When they say “built by the community”, they really mean it. The plan hinges on local residents – from housewives to major landowners – giving permission to dig across their land free of charge, and then doing most of the actual work themselves. Forde says they will send local people on a course to learn how to splice and connect optical fibres, and will rely on them to come out and fix the network in the event of a fibre cut.
B4RN will need to use some professional services (to take down and rebuild stone walls for example) but the JFDI approach (which I’m reliably informed means Just Farmers Doing It) will reduce labour costs dramatically. Labour as payment in kind is expected to account for about one third of the total project cost.
People donating their time won’t go uncompensated. B4RN will issue two classes of shares, with Class B being paid for “by sweat rather than swag.”
Class A shares, on the other hand, require an investment of between £100 and £20,000, and the willingness to tie up your money for four years with no dividends – B4RN is registered as a community benefit society with the Industrial & Provident Society, which means that any profits must be reinvested in the community. To make the share offer commercially attractive, however, B4RN has designed it to be compatible with the Enterprise Investment Scheme, which allows tax payers to claim back 30% of their investment from the Inland Revenue.
“So long as we deliver on our business plan, you’ll get your money back with a much higher level of interest than if you’d stuck it in a bank at 0.1% interest,” Forde told prospective shareholders at the meeting this afternoon.
And that’s the crux of the matter. After months of planning, the B4RN team will now have to do what they said they were going to do. Digging should start early next year – although maybe not in January because the ground will either be frozen or sodden, they said.
The B4RN project has amassed a huge following of well wishers and supporters in recent months. Local landowners and MPs have written letters of support. David Collier from the National Farmers Union tweeted: “#B4RN could be the model for rural community broadband projects,” adding that the NFU would offer practical support.
The project has also drawn international attention. Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, has tweeted about it. And Gigabit City, a group representing Google’s planned FTTH network in Kansas City, sent a short video message that was played at the meeting in Lancaster. To have its plan compared to that of Google: that’s an auspicious start for such a small fibre network.