Setting up a community broadband scheme is hard work, but short term steps can also solve your problems, says Daniel Heery.
Ask most rural residents if they would like their broadband to be faster and more reliable and you will generally get a resounding "Yes".
It feels like every week there is a story in the news about the poor state of rural broadband.
I often see communities paralysed because they do not know where to start. Setting up a community broadband scheme is hard work, but taking a few short term steps may solve your problems.
It is best to check the setup in your home first, do some speedtests with a laptop plugged directly into your router. If you connect wirelessly, you can improve speeds around the house by using home plugs and WiFi repeaters.
You can also look at a better router and change your ISP – the cheapest deals are not necessarily the best for rural areas. Some areas are now covered by 4G mobile networks – a 4G router and antenna could be the answer, but data costs are punitive if its used heavily.
You should also speak to your local authority broadband team – they will give you a better idea of what will be available when. Bear in mind that their plans are constantly changing so you should keep checking.
If you are unsure where to start – there are three options.
1) The government has a web page for community based schemes.
2) Cybermoor can carry out a technical feasibility to give you an indication of costs for building a network in your community – see the Cybermoor Networks website.
3) Finally, the Independent Network Co-operative Association regularly holds broadband events.
At Cybermoor, we have supported parish councils, development trusts and community activists from across the UK to improve their broadband service and go from a feeling of helplessness to speeding along the internet fast lane.
In cases where there is no solution from BT in the next couple of years, some local authorities are going out to tender to find suppliers that can deliver to the last 5% of properties. If there are other residents that would like improved broadband, then make councillors and officers aware of this.
This can help to stimulate providers – there is a finite amount of funds and communities that make the most noise move higher up the list. Also look at alternative suppliers – BT are often stimulated to act when they see a village going with a different supplier.
There are a wide range of alternative suppliers out there using wireless, fibre to the home and satellite to deliver speeds which are not available from BT. These suppliers are use different technologies and can be more flexible.
Getting a critical mass of customers to buy a broadband service is the main barrier that stops most schemes. The challenge for all suppliers is to develop a customer base that covers the ongoing costs and makes a profit so "demand stimulation" is really the key to get broadband companies interested in your community.
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.