High-speed broadband: the next step for the co-operative movement

High-speed broadband: the next step for the co-operative movement
The Guardian, by Rosie Niven

The internet revolution has come late to some communities, particularly ones in rural areas.

The challenges of distance from the telephone exchange, poor wires and sparsely populated communities have combined to make broadband provision unviable for some companies, without expensive infrastructure. This has prompted residents in some areas to set up community-owned ventures to improve local access to broadband. Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) is an organisation set up to tackle "the digital divide" in north Lancashire. Covering eight parishes in the Forest of Bowland and the Lune Valley, it is seeking to provide a community fibre network offering broadband via a 1GB internet connection.

The co-operative wants to provide next generation broadband to every home to avoid any further costly stopgap solutions. It has already reached its funding target through issuing community shares. Chris Conder a member of B4RN says the ultimate aim of the project is to become the "UK’s first gigabit parish".

Now on the cusp of a hi-speed future, the area has come a long way in 10 years. In 2002, the only way of getting online was through a dial-up connection, but the area’s distance from the exchange meant this was particularly slow.

Some homes, including Conder’s own have since gained broadband access through Lancaster University’s Wray Broadband Project and other community initiatives.

However, the B4RN project offers a "future proofed" connection that is substantially faster than anything existing in the area at the moment.

Conder says high-speed internet will help to regenerate the local parishes and provide many other social benefits. "Instead of going into town, older people can see a doctor via Skype."

"The kids are getting detention because the teachers do not believe they can’t do their homework online," she adds. "So if they miss the school bus because of detention they can’t get home."

The community share offer means the project can proceed without substantial public funding. Shares can be bought or earned by those who dig the trenches for the cable to be laid or use their specialist skills to help the project.

"We are not looking to make a profit," says Conder. "Anything left over goes back into the community in the form of either a price reduction or everyone can vote on what it is spent on."

Another project that has embarked on a community share issue is Cybermoor, based in the area around Alston in eastern Cumbria. It was started in 2001 after money was obtained for broadband infrastructure from the Wired Communities funding stream. It became a co-operative providing wireless broadband to homes in the Alston area.

Daniel Heery, the chief executive of Cybermoor, explains that securing broadband brought investment into the area by helping to attract new, entrepreneurial residents. "It gave us an advantage," he says.

"We got people to move to the area who wanted to live somewhere peaceful in the Pennines with connectivity. We were offering something unique. That USP has disappeared but we do get calls from people who need high download speeds and we can help there."

One decade on and they are aiming to raise £100,000 to upgrade to next generation broadband, with almost one third of this target already in place. For every £1 raised through the shares issue they can get double the amount from Europe in match funding.

The project decided to set up a co-op on the back of the income stream from Wired Communities so that the community could own the infrastructure, "We wanted to give the community an element of control," says Heery. "Most broadband is owned by these big faceless multinationals."

One of the main drivers for community broadband projects has been the slowness of telecom companies to invest in rural areas. But in some areas private sector investment has soon followed.

Residents of Teesdale in County Durham had struggled with slow internet speeds until the past year when the Digital Teesdale project provided the area with high-speed internet via licensed radio space. Since then, private companies have started serving the area, but Charlotte Stow, Digital Teesdale’s diagnostics and marketing coordinator, says that by identifying a market, the project has brought other providers in: "We knew that it would bring a level of competition from the private sector," she says. "It’s the case that other private companies who have not been interested have stepped things up. We are absolutely delighted with that – it is not about capitalising on that market."

The project’s lead organisation regeneration organisation Barnard Castle Vision secured £300,000 of funding from One North East and went out to tender for a private sector delivery partner which would provide the rest of the funding. WiMax, the solution chosen by partner Networks By Wireless, was a system used by troops in Afghanistan and deemed suitable for the sparsely populated valley.

Beneficiaries of the project include farmers who can now record stock movements online and those working in the valley’s tourism sector who can handle online bookings. "I expect people’s needs and desires will increase," she says. "That something we have an eye on."

Tackling "not spots" and "slow spots" in rural areas has been one of the primary reasons for establishing community broadband projects. But community-based solutions are also being used to help customers in urban areas who have difficulty in accessing an internet service at affordable rates.

Bristol Wireless provide open source ICT to businesses, the community and voluntary sector and the general public. It covers the area of Easton, which was listed by the government’s Indices of Deprivation. One result of this deprivation was that the area was late to join the digital revolution.

The Co-op was set up in 2002 after the Easton Community Centre got broadband and decided to share it with the community. A tech team was assembled to create a network using re-purposed computers with Jim Bream whisky tins as aerials.

Bristol Wireless now provides and manages internet rooms in community centres and for housing associations, in addition to running a wireless network. Its network provides internet and VOIP telephone service to organisations including social housing bodies, community centres and arts groups.

Network manager Richard Higgs says small, not-for-profit organisations often find it difficult to get affordable internet from mainstream providers, when they are starting out. "If we weren’t here they would have to go down the BT route," he says. "That wouldn’t suit everyone."

Community broadband has played an important role in getting more communities connected. These projects are now facing the challenge of meeting increasing customer demand without the grants and funding streams that have supported new projects in the past.

The government’s broadband delivery programme for the UK seeks to deliver its 2MB a second broadband service commitment by 2015, putting the UK at the forefront of high-speed broadband provision in Europe. But with minimum requirements of turnover and customers being proposed for participants, some community projects fear they may be left out in the cold. And that could risk isolating some of the organisations that have played a major role in tackling the digital divide to date.