A Man, A Plan

Perhaps the question to remind ourselves of first is “Why create a broadband project in the first place?” The answer is that the market has struggled to deliver an adequate, universally available first-generation broadband service and will struggle even more with superfast broadband. Around 10% of homes and businesses cannot get a basic 2 Mbps service and, in terms of next-generation broadband coverage, our current best estimate is that around two-thirds of the population will be covered through commercial investment. That leaves a lot of people in the broadband slow lane. Hence there is a need to take action at local level – and probably the reason you are reading this booklet.

But where to start? There is more than one approach to deliver superfast broadband, and the requirements and resources of every community or region will be different. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify key stages in the lifetime of a broadband project – from the first decision to “do something” to a completed project with a sustainable business providing broadband in the target area.

In general the project stages will follow each other sequentially over time, although it is likely that some decisions may need to be revisited as new information comes to light. There are a number of different threads – such as community engagement, business models, technology options and funding requirements – that will run through all phases of the project, and which should be kept constantly under review.

Stage Description Example Actions
Stages in the lifetime of a broadband project
ONE Individual Mrs Jones

Check existing provision

Contact local authorities

Form community groups

TWO Group North Dorset

Identify area of problem – mapping

Collect evidence of demand

Partnerships

Technology options

Legal structures

THREE Company Angus Glens

Create a business plan

Consult potential suppliers

Service templates

Funding / investment

FOUR

Funded project

Cybermoor

Tender for the project build

Appoint suppliers

Take-up marketing

Stage 1: Form a group

As an individual frustrated with broadband provision, the obvious first step is to check whether your home can be expected to receive an upgrade to superfast broadband under the announced plans of the major service providers, or as part of the regional, county-led deployment. There may also be community projects underway in the local area that you could support. Demand aggregation is such an important element in next-generation broadband projects that you will usually have a greater chance of success by joining an existing scheme than by creating a new project group and dividing the support base.

However, should your search prove fruitless, then you will have to start from scratch, but don’t be deterred! A small but enthusiastic team of committed volunteers can make a huge difference. Therefore you will need to join forces with like-minded people, who recognise the importance of broadband and understand the potential benefits. Talk to local contacts and to people with influence locally such as major landowners, schools and local businesses (especially those in the IT industry), the parish or town council and others, to discover those like-minded people.

Parish or town councils can play a particularly useful role in broadband projects. As the first tier of local government, they have legal status in the administration of the community and certain powers to help them carry out their work. They generally have established communications channels with the relevant local authorities, and access to support and information through counties and national associations. Although parish councillors are elected, they are also community volunteers and often possess the experience, knowledge and skills to carry out local projects. Even if not directly involved with a project, endorsement from the parish council is likely to have a positive impact on discussions with other stakeholders.

In fact, local authorities and economic development organisations often do assume the project lead because they have a vested interest in the economic prosperity of the local area, and because they have the resources – both human and financial – to direct projects of this nature. But this is not the only way forward – community action groups often lead successful projects.

The campaigns that have the greatest chance of success are those with a champion, someone who is absolutely passionate about the project and will see it through to the end. The rest of the team will need a variety of skills: accountant, lawyer, technical, market research, communication, sales and marketing. If you don’t have those skills within the team, seek outside help as and when required.

Stage 2: Identify demand

Establishing the level of demand in a community will help to stimulate supplier interest and will provide evidence to support any fund-raising activities. There are a couple of ways to do this: do some mapping of existing provision, and carry out a survey.

Mapping exercises use empirial data about existing levels of broadband provision and the local geography to provide valuable insight into the level of potential demand and the challenges you may face in trying to improve the situation (see The importance of maps and Maps to support the business case).

A survey will create a more detailed, more subjective profile of your community and its communications needs. You can easily find examples of such surveys with an internet search. Questions usually start with the basics, such as the number and ages of people in the household. Who provides the existing broadband service (if any), and is the performance satisfactory? Surveys often include questions about how much time people spend using the internet and what they spend time doing. Do they run a business at home, for example? The survey should be clear and concise, and explain its purpose in non-technical terms that the average person can understand.

You can also ask questions about the interest in and willingness to pay for superfast broadband. Be careful how you ask such questions, however. If you make it too easy for people to say yes, then when it’s time to part with hard-earned cash, they are no longer interested and the business model falls apart. Also bear in mind that people may be reluctant to answer questions about their willingness to pay in case it gives suppliers a good excuse to charge high prices!

Don’t assume that an online survey will meet all your requirements. People lead busy lives. A knock on the door from a campaign representative, enquiring as to whether the survey has been completed, will often increase the response rate to the survey. And of course, an online-only survey will exclude those with the greatest need because they cannot get working broadband in the first place.

While demand is being assessed, the team should research other community projects to see what could be learned. Find out about and stay up to date on technologies, applications and legislation. The team will need to develop sufficient knowledge to be able to explain their vision to others, to evaluate business proposals and negotiate effectively with solutions providers. Suppliers are usually more than happy to engage with projects to discuss technical information.

Based on this research, the team should refine the vision and scope of the project. What are the goals in terms of the end-user experience? How do these goals align with the available funding? Identify likely synergies that will help to move the plan forward as well as possible obstacles.

This is also a good time to start to build partnerships. Identify which organisations in your community might take an active role in the project. It is vital that the stakeholders understand the benefits of broadband in the context of their own interests. The opportunities created by high-speed internet could be the incentive for a school or hospital to get involved, which creates income for the network and a stronger social argument for obtaining funding. Local businesses such as hotels, housing authorities or mobile phone networks may also be interested in becoming collaborators.

Stage 3: Business models

Not all communities will have the same appetite for getting involved in broadband issues. Some communities will be content to sit back and wait for services to be delivered. Others will want to take a more active role building local demand or go further and raise money to develop their own local project.

Aggregating demand may be all that is necessary to bring broadband to a community. BT’s “Race to Infinity” campaign, which took place in December 2010, is a high-profile example of a demand aggregation campaign in which individuals voted for their exchange to be added to its superfast broadband roll out. In the end 10 winning exchanges were named. There are also a number of alternative service providers who will, at their own expense, install broadband networks in a community when a sufficient number of pre-service contracts have been signed.

Local authorities are working hard to extend the coverage of superfast broadband to at least 90% of households with the help of government funds. For communities outside these plans, BDUK and DEFRA have identified five broad business models. These fall into two main groups depending on whether they are delivered by the local authority’s chosen broadband supplier or by the community organising itself such that is capable of engaging directly with a supplier.

GROUP 1: Facilitate local authority project

  • Demand registration: The community signs pre-service contracts to lower the risk for the local authorities chosen broadband supplier.
  • Build and benefit: The community formally offers to lower costs for the broadband supplier by, for example, digging trenches, arrranging wayleaves or paying higher installation charges.

GROUP 2: Community enterprise

  • Partnership: The community raises some of the finance, but engages a partner to bring in the rest of the investment, and to design, build and operate the network on its behalf. Gap funding is the most common approach.
  • Concession: The community is prepared to raise all of the finance, but brings in a partner to design, build and operate the network. The community retains ownership of the network but grants an exclusive right to the partner to run the network.
  • DIY design, build and operate: The community is prepared to raise the finance, design, build and operate the network themselves.

Whichever model is selected, you will need a business plan – a document that contains all the information to justify the project, along with the supporting information about how you will make it happen, including market analysis, current bandwidth needs and projections, and complete financial information.

The level of technical detail in the plan will depend on the chosen business model. The plan could be mainly a procurement exercise, inviting suppliers to design a cost-effective technical solution to deliver a specific outcome. This approach makes a lot of sense. OnsNet in the Netherlands, a municipal network with a strong community focus (OnsNet means “Our Network”), has the mantra “community owned, professionally run.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a community can design, build and operate its own network. The plan should then include complete technical information, and consider network reliability and customer support, as well as future expansion and upgrades. Don’t forget to include the marketing and operating costs in the equation as well as the capital costs of digging and equipment. The financial information should contain realistic revenue and cost projections that lead to sustainability – in other words the project should be able to support itself financially over the longer term.

The “DIY” option is potentially the most risky as it is highly dependent on the skill of the team members. This option also carries additional risk because small networks often have trouble attracting service providers. Lack of retail competiton can leave the project exposed to the possibility that the government could fund a competitive deployment in the same area. Creating a new ISP creates further business challenges, not least in terms of technical support.

However, solutions to these problems are emerging: in 2011 Hampshire County Council worked with Fluidata, NetAdmin and Magdalene to trial a wholesale aggregation platform that brings 40 service providers to the table. INCA is also developing the “Quality Marque”, which will specify a set of standards against which community networks can be developed.

Stage 4: Appoint a supplier

The final stage of the planning process is to approach suppliers and discuss your requirements. Keep everyone informed, especially your key stakeholders and collaborators. Report back to the community regularly, and keep your website updated.

Funding can come from a variety of sources, including government grant or investment, angel investors and banks, various charitable award schemes such as the National Lottery, and of course the community itself, through a community shares program (see box). In-kind payments are also worth considering. Instead of paying the landowner to cross his field, offer free installation of a high-speed internet connection.

If government funding is involved, then issues of state aid can arise, which can delay a project or, in the worst case scenario, require repayment of funding plus interest. Expert advice may be needed to choose the right financial structure and appropriate procurement process. In practice, however, there have been a number of precedents for public funding of broadband networks in the UK, both large and small.

Keep up the momentum! It takes time for a project to reach a successful conclusion. Prepare for setbacks and persevere. You may have to revise the plan several times before finding a solution that is acceptable to all parties and within your financial means. Remember: the long-term benefits will make it worthwhile.

This article originally appeared in Beyond Broadband.