B4RN storms rural broadband market with 1Gbps symmetic FTTH
A rural community in Lancashire hopes to raise an initial £2m to install and operate a 1Gbps symmetric fibre to the home (FTTH) broadband network that will connect more than 1,300 homes and 320 business in the area and create the UK’s best residential broadband network.The people behind the Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), a community owned limited company, are CEO Barry Forde, who designed Cleo, the Cumbria and Lancashire education network, FTTH advocate and fibre self-installer Chris Conder, internet marketer, copywriter and author Lindsey Annison, and Christopher May, a business academic at Lancaster University.
The four embarked on the venture after the Lancashire County Council absorbed a £750,000 grant for the project from the England Rural Development Programme into its own broadband procurement programme, and Conder received notice on access to Cleo, which supplied backhaul for her community network, when BT took over managing Cleo.
They believe that the county’s £60m broadband programme will provide 2Mbps at best to their area. That is unacceptable to them and their neighbours, and nowhere close to the European Digital Agenda targets of 30Mbps for all and 50% using 100Mbps by 2020, they say.
In a business plan published on the B4RN website, they say “Public sector interventions do not have the funding to … deliver these sorts of speeds to deeply rural areas like ours. If we are to get true high speed, future proofed broadband able to deliver at least 100Mbps by 2017 and with an upgrade path to 1Gbps and beyond, then we will have to take matters into our own hands.”
They say existing copper cables cannot deliver these speeds, nor can satellite or mobile broadband. BT’s £2.5bn fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) scheme will provide up to 40Mbps now, and up to 80Mbps next year, but only for premises that are less than 500m from a cabinet.
Last broadband decision ever
B4RN estimates it will cost £1.86m to lay fibre cables to all 1322 properties in the eight parishes proposed for its first phase. Each household that subscribes will get a 1Gbps symmetrical broadband for £30 (£25+VAT) a month.
“This is the last broadband decision people will have to make, ever,” said Conder.
The equipment in the customer’s property will have a one hour battery fitted. This will allow those who want to use VoIP telephony services exclusively, to cancel their BT landlines, saving £13.90 a month. Existing telephone numbers can be transferred to the B4RN service, they say.
“Our target is a 70% take-up by the end of year one,” Forde said. This will cover capital and operating costs, pay interest on outstanding shares in the company, and fund some buy back of shares, he said.
“The rate at which we can pay interest and buy back shares will depend on the take-up, but our ambition is to pay 5% interest from year four onwards,” Forde said. Shares will be locked in for three years.
Shareholders will see a quicker return than that. Under HM Revenue & Customs Enterprise Investment Scheme, B4RN shareholders will be able to offset 30% of their investment (of between £500 and £500,000) against their income tax in the year in which the investment is made.
Investors willing to invest £1500 or more will be able to nominate a property for free connection and free service for a year.
“We need cash and in kind contributions of around £1m to permit us to kick off the project,” Forde said. “The gap between that and the £1.8m will need filling, but given a clear demand combined with substantial offers of funding it will be worth our while to go ahead.”
B4RN also plans to explore other sources of funding such as the Defra broadband funding scheme, the Community Development Fund, county and district council, and any other initiatives aimed at rural development.
If it gets the money it needs, all the initial properties will be online by the end of 2012. Phases two and three will require more fund raising but will extend the network to 16 more parishes and about 5,000 properties.
However, there are challenges. B4RN will have to persuade local landowners to waive potential rentals from wayleaves, and to help, or at least not hinder, the installation of ducts for the fibre across their lands.
The Country Land & Business Association (CLA) is working on a voluntary broadband wayleave agreement, but it has been held up by red tape and is unlikely to be ready before the end of October.
Secondly, more than £500,000 of the £1.86m cost of building the network is for labour. B4RN aims to let residents acquire shares from labour rather than cash.
“There are many who could dig the trenches, install duct and make good afterwards, and their contribution would be invaluable,” Forde said.
People could also contribute administrative, clerical and technical support to pay for shares. B4RN aims to train installers and network technicians, adding to the skills base in the region.
Conder said access to reliable high speed broadband would attract jobs and tourists, which was why officials from the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty were backing the scheme.