The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Lessons from Nuenen

In terms of consumer take up the most successful broadband project in the world is the OnsNet (OurNet) community broadband project that started in the small town of Nuenen in the Netherlands. There more than 80% of the community are signed up to the local FTTH network. This is an astonishing level of commitment, way in excess of demand profiles used by most telcos. Any community that can deliver anything approaching these levels of take up can pretty much guarantee a cast iron investment proposition. In project studies undertaken by the Community Broadband Network, take up levels of around 35% were gauged to be needed for long term viability.

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Onsnet is featured as a case study in this knowledge base. Here it is worth exploring the key features distilled from the project by its founder Kees Rovers (pictured left).

A traditional telecommunications provider faces a number of drawbacks in a niche market where the constraints of their core market predicates a “one size fits all” solution in which a lowest common denominator service is delivered to the widest possible audience. The existence of the ‘final third’ demonstrates that rural areas pose significant challenges to this approach due to population density, geography and topology. In urban areas whilst ADSL2.0 and FTTC offerings may suit many in the population, some areas are seeking to develop high speed, symmetric FTTH projects to provide a competitive telecommunications environment for digital and creative businesses. One size is struggling to fit all.

A community-led service may offer certain benefits over a traditional model; for example, there is a lower expectation for a return on capital, often restricted to technology renewal, and a longer term, utility-style finacing can be readily adopted. Internet operators increasingly adopt shorter term “technology” investment cycles, with expectations of a significant return on their investment in as little as 18-months. This is very different to the investment requirements of next generation broadband.

Kees Rovers sums up the core attributes of a successful community-owned broadband project in ‘seven pillars’

  1. A viable business model
  2. An 'us' feeling
  3. A set of basic services
  4. Additional local services
  5. Community communication
  6. Customer care
  7. A quality network

Only the last of these really focuses on the technology, and over half of the pillars are something which can only be delivered with local knowledge and involvement.

One characteristic of successful community led projects such as this is that internet access typically becomes less relevant as time progresses. While it can often provide the impetus to begin a project, once the project reaches maturity many people will cite local services or one of the other pillars as the key reason they continue to support the project; a pillar which can't be replicated by the “one size fits all” model. In this case, the seed demand comes from education and healthcare services, and not from generic internet services, further reinforcing this argument.

A Viable Business Model

Community broadband projects are businesses first and foremost. They have to generate income and profits to survive and prosper. The business model will vary - some projects will focus more on developing commercially attractive services, others on attracting funding for projects of public benefit. The critical factor is that the business model is robust and can generate profits for reinvestment and to reimburse the providers of capital.

Cooperation – the “us feeling”

The second tenet of community broadband is to develop an “us feeling”; one way to ensure this is through a co-operative structure, giving “customers”, or more accurately community members, a say in how the business is run, its future strategy, and the shape of the service set.

Many people in rural areas are familiar with this structure and should feel comfortable with it – self sufficiency, community effort and community enterprise have long been woven into the local fabric. Where a co-operative model is used, it is governed by a core set of agreed principles promoted internationally by the global International Co operative Alliance:

  • Voluntary and open membership;
  • Democratic member control;
  • Members’ economic participation – guaranteeing real commitment and returning a share of the profits;
  • Autonomy and independence;
  • Education, training and information;
  • Co-operation with other co-operative enterprises; and
  • Care for the community.

Thus a local community broadband project is likely to aim to reinvest surpluses in new services, make a return on investment, and support new ventures and projects in the community. This keeps the enterprise focused on the needs of its members in the short and longer term.

A Set of Basic Services

Unless the project has a set of basic services to offer it won’t last. In most cases projects will aim to operate on an ‘open access’ basis. However in the UK major service providers are reluctant to get involved in providing services to smaller scale networks. This problem is being addressed by INCA, the Broadband Stakeholder Group and others. However at this point in time in some projects there will be a role for a ‘Community ISP’ to guarantee a core set of services on the network from Day 1.

Additional Local Services

Successful community broadband projects have often focused on developing additional services beyond basic Internet / triple play for their members. Alston Cybermoor for instance has made significant progress piloting tele-health and care services on the network.

With the rise of social networking and a set of internet tools that can create local blogs, directories and newsfeeds, the opportunities to serve the community from within the community with new services such as car-sharing schemes, markets for voluntary time, touchdown points for homeworkers, upgraded community security platforms and a whole set of internet-based community services that were unthinkable ten years are now possible.  However, the key component is that the community develops and owns the solutions and does not depend on being told what the solution should be from National politicians, media barons or telecoms companies.

Community Communication

This is perhaps the single most significant factor in the success of OnsNet. Getting the community behind the project drove astonishing levels of demand and delivered significant profits to the investors and community from the second year onwards. It was achieved through a process of communication that focused on the needs and aspirations of the community and how these could be met with an FTTH project, not on the technology itself. The key factor was getting the right stakeholder groups on-board, engaging with members of different groups in the community and finding clever ways of encouraging demand.

Customer Care

Everybody hates call centres, but the national telcos find it impossible to abandon them. In contrast, OnsNet and every other community broadband project has someone locally you can turn to when there is a problem. Often community broadband projects will major on volunteer effort to help get people online and to help solve problems. Neighbours help other neighbours. Clearly, a robust, high quality network needs high quality maintenance and support, but from a customer’s perspective, nothing beats the human touch of local support.

A Quality Network

This is the one factor that the major telco should always be able to deliver. In the context of next generation broadband it means getting the balance right between what the community does for itself, and what it contracts others to do for it. With OnsNet, the whole FTTH network was engineered by a civil engineering firm that went on to form Reggefiber, the major Dutch fibre operator, which is now 40% owned by KPN (the Dutch incumbent). In Manchester the FTTH project is being delivered by Geo, a well respected fibre deployment company, capable of ensuring that the network is built to high quality and resilience.

DIY has its place, not least in encouraging farmers to dig trenches to reduce costs in very rural areas, but the overall project needs to be managed with the future in mind. A fibre network will last for upwards of 25 years and deliver vital services in the community. It has to be a high quality network.

In conclusion, the so-called “Seven Pillars” of Fibre Networks give us a very good framework on which to base the key components of a local broadband scheme, as well as stimulating the local community to become creative about solving their own particular needs at the local level with minimal support from national financing, politicians or telecoms companies.  All those with ambitions to create local schemes should think carefully about how to cover each of the seven points in order to ensure the success and sustainability of the local communities in the rapidly evolving Internet age.