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The Broadband Is Coming

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Farmer's wife and founding B4RN member Chris Conder runs a new fiber connection at the termination point.

Faced with lackluster, sometimes unavailable, Internet connectivity, townspeople in Lanchashire in the north of England created their own gigabit fiber-optic network.

Credit: Logan Kugler

Residents of the rural English county of Lancashire had no hardwired Internet, just a wireless connection providing barely half a megabit per second (Mbps) of service to their homes. That was in perfect weather; if it were raining, they often would have no connection at all. The local telecom provider, BT, would not tell residents when they were going to run faster Internet to their area, or if they ever would.

After years of enduring sluggish or non-existent Internet connectivity, local residents decided to build a gigabit fiber-optic network themselves. Completely citizen-organized and led, the proud townspeople of Lancashire have built a 1-gigabit-per-second symmetrical, super-fast fiber Internet, without the help of the British government or BT.

The project is called B4RN (pronounced, appropriately, "barn"), which stands for "Broadband for the Rural North." It started in 2011 as a response to the poor local Internet that neither the British government nor BT felt compelled to address. It has grown from a community project into a profitable commercial network that serves more than 1,200 paying customers and employs seven full-time staff members. It is entirely self-funded, and outclasses the network now being built far too late by BT.

"At the start, we couldn't afford to do it with contractors, so we did it ourselves" says Chris Conder, a self-described farmer's wife and one of B4RN's founding members.

It started with Barry Forde, a local resident with a background in telecom and a Professorial Fellowship in computer networking from Lancaster University. Forde, tired of lackluster Internet, began work on a better network. The community rallied behind him, and B4RN was born.

Good Neighbors, Bad Internet

Poor Internet in rural English communities is the norm, but it used to be manageable. Even with a bad connection, you could still read, click, and email.

Then, a little site called YouTube was invented.

It was the dawn of mass-market always-on super-fast Internet built to accommodate online applications like e-commerce, cloud software and services, on-demand video, and increasingly rich visual and audio content.

Without a faster connection, Lancashire residents like Conder were cut off from everything the Internet had to offer. BT was opaque about its plans for when or where or whether faster broadband would be installed in the area, and the government would not provide residents a grant to build their own network.

"We said if we couldn't get money from the government, we'd get it another way," says Conder.

They did what they always do in times of need: they turned to their neighbors.

Connecting the North

B4RN takes cash from local people who want to be connected. Then a trench must be dug (often over several kilometers) to the customer's farm, house, or business location (usually the customers themselves get in on the digging). Once the trench is dug and laid with PVC pipe, optical fiber is blown through the pipe.

Many networks connect to a central hub, and regular phone lines take the bandwidth the rest of the way to a home or business. B4RN's network is a type known as Fiber to the Home (FTTH), which means it connects optical fiber directly to a home or business, not to a hub of telephone lines. The result is a super-fast 1 gigabit-per-second (Gbps) symmetrical network that can be easily upgraded to 10 or even 40 Gbps and beyond, making it future-proof.

All of the financing comes from residents, in the form of loans to B4RN or sizable "shares" bought and paid back over time. Each share costs one British pound, and residents buy as many shares as desired; those who buy 1,500 pounds-worth receive a free connection. (Typically, the connection fee is 150 pounds.) Customers then pay service fees of 30 pounds per month (though businesses with higher bandwidth needs pay more). These funds are pumped back into the network's growth.

Conder says the launch of the project, "including registering B4RN with the Financial Services Authority (FSA), and the fliers and banners, were funded by AONB, our local Forest of Bowland Area of Natural Beauty. They gave us a grant of £5,000; that is the only help we have had from non-residents. The actual phase 1 costs were £500,000 or thereabouts, which was raised totally from the community.

She says costs for each successive phase fluctuate, but B4RN's most recent business plan puts the total cost for the project's three phases at 3.5 million pounds. So far, 1,200 residents have been connected. "It all comes down to whoever wants it," says Conder, but she estimates 5,000 people in total will be connected when the project is complete.

BT is not happy about the project, even though it all started because the company failed to serve a thirsty market. Conder says residents frequently tried to find out if BT had plans to service the area, as government grant money was contingent on the answer, but no response was forthcoming (and so neither was government funding).

In a Vice article on B4RN, BT claimed all information on coverage areas was in the hands of local authorities, and that "It's up to them whether they want to provide it or how they want to provide it."

Conder and her cohort are not buying it. "Where we're already operational, BT is overbuilding us," she says. "They're coming into areas that they said they couldn't or wouldn't do, providing a vastly inferior service, and people aren't going for it."

BT's Infinity service claims to reach up to 40 Mbps per second, but Conder says that it never reaches that speed, especially across her area's long, and sometimes damaged, cables.

"They're using taxpayer money to do this: our local councils are giving them money that was supposed to go to us." B4RN was supposed to receive grant money from their city council, Conder says, until that money was instead earmarked for projects run by BT.

It's a sad state of affairs, but the B4RN team, traditionally British, is keeping calm and carrying on. They routinely educate other communities about how to build their own networks, and they still have thousands more people within their own area who want to get connected.

Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa, FL. He has written for over 60 major publications.


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