Community Broadband

The first thing that we have to acknowledge is that not all communities will have the same appetite for getting involved in broadband issues.

Adrian Wooster summed this up very well in a blog posting ‘A framework for localism – from pump to home’ [http://wooster.org.uk/2011/03/pump-to-home/]. As Wooster puts it, many counties are aiming to leverage their public service networks to deliver ‘digital village pumps’ – essentially local access points providing backhaul connectivity – but that this requires the procurement exercise to include a community strategy to deliver the access network.

Some communities will be content to let others take on the responsibility and wait for services to be delivered. Others will want to take on a more active role, building local demand in schemes like BT’s ‘Race to Infinity’ or go further and raise money to develop their own local projects.

In other sectors of the economy it has been proven that many communities, particularly rural communities, will raise investment in order to keep or develop valued local services like pubs, shops and renewable energy schemes. One of the reasons that INCA partnered with the Plunkett Foundation, alongside ACRE, to develop the Big Society Broadband Project is that Plunkett has a wealth of experience in supporting rural community enterprises including 250 community-owned shops and many pubs.

In the broadband field projects like Alston Cybermoor, [link to case study] Great Asby Broadband, Next Genus [link to case study] and Rutland Telecom [link to case study] demonstrate that local investment can be generated to support broadband projects.

From a large supplier’s point of view whether it be BT, Fujitsu Telecom or an alternative player, the appetite of the local community to get more involved has important ramifications on the potential costs of a scheme and the nature of the investment. A community that raises investment is likely to be a patient investor, and indeed most community investment schemes through co-ops or community interest companies will encourage this. The community is likely to be more interested in getting a high quality, competitively priced service, than in a rapid return on the investment. For the public sector, communities that are prepared to make additional efforts will help make the business case for public investment stronger and get a bigger bang for the taxpayers’ buck.

However it is not all plain sailing. Support for community initiatives is currently patchy. The Big Society Broadband Project aims to build a partnership that can change this by trialling different approaches, raising funding and organising local support, but this will take time. Organisations like the Rural Broadband Partnership [http://www.ruralbroadband.com/] are aiming to provide further sources of support.

Another challenge for community broadband is to create the right structures that can allow national players to engage, whether they be third party ISPs delivering services, network builders and operators, or potential investors. Whilst the sector remains looking fragmented and sub-scale it is difficult for these players to get involved.

If these challenges can be overcome the prize is great: community ownership over the problem and investment in the solution can become a significant part of the funding pot, bringing forward the horizons for widespread, future-proofed, next generation broadband deployment.