Fibre is the best technology to bring broadband to rural areas – but it is also the most expensive, says Daniel Heery.
I recently found myself driving to the heart of Northumberland on a cold bright Spring day to attend a broadband suppliers event at Wingates Institute, kindly organised by Northumberland County Council's broadband team.
The objective of the meeting was to bring together potential suppliers of solutions with members of the community around Nunnykirk, Hollinghill and Rothley parishes so both sides could get a better understanding of the issues of getting superfast broadband into the area.
The layout of BT's network in the area means it is too technically and financially challenging to address 90 homes and farms in this area. The village hall was busy, 6 suppliers, 10 residents, local landowners, Northumbrian Water and council staff.
The event started with presentations from the County Councillor and iNorthumberland team, setting out the history of broadband in the area and how the County Council could help.
Louise, a staunch campaigner for better broadband in the area, made an impassioned speech covering her travails over the last 10 years. Locals do not have the time to go back and forth to Wingates Institute to fill out government forms, update their websites and download e-mails.
Schoolchildren travelling 2-3 miles to complete their myMaths homework impacts on their education and family life. This contrasts with Newcastle, where you are only a few minutes' walk from a coffee shop, pub or library with free WiFi.
Suppliers were cautious – I asked about the potential that BT could decide to upgrade their system after another supplier had invested in a new broadband network?
There was a feeling that BT would be glad to see someone else come in and the council could de-scope the area from BT's plan.
Progress was being made – the school had secured a 4G service costing £250/month. There was a commitment from BT to deliver a fibre service by the end of the year to part of the area.
These new services were welcomed by some of the people in the hall but undermined the viability for an alternative solution which would reach Louise and her neighbours.
The 4G upgrade to the local mast was now providing a service to people who do a bit of streaming, browsing and e-mails. Taking these basic customers out of the market leaves about 30 homes that would be interested in a fixed line broadband service.
This is where the wheels come off a commercial solution – the cost of building the network and delivering a high capacity broadband feed has high fixed up front costs without a guarantee of future revenue.
Most of the suppliers were offering a fixed wireless solution that can do the job in the medium term. Louise had already run a small community wireless network for several years for a group of houses and knew the limitations.
Running fibre optic cables to all the homes could cost £250K, but this would come down if locals helped lay the cables.
Parishes and other notspots around the country face a number of key issues:
New developments like 4G and BT's Community fibre are eating into the potential customers required to make a good business case for an alternative operator.
Louise has been looking for a solution for the past 10 years – there is no shortage of technologies, but its hard to reach a consensus with the wider community and the council on a particular solution.
This is a risky bet – but it should be noted that plenty of other communities have pressed on and are benefiting from a solution.
How to progress? I think the best technology bet is fibre – its futureproof and has the lowest operating costs BUT it is also the most expensive.
Daniel Heery is chief executive of Cybermoor, a co-operative based in Alston Moor, Cumbria, providing innovative digital services to rural areas. For details, visit www.cybermoor.org.