Community Broadband Project in the UK Tests DIY Fiber Deployment

  • B4RN
  • FTTH
LANCASTER, UK - Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) is similar in many ways to other ambitious multicommunity projects in the U.S. and the U.K.: Residents of an underserved rural area have set up a cooperative organization to build and run a gigabit fiber network and are now holding meetings to educate their neighbors about the benefits of fiber and solicit them to preregister for services and become involved in bringing the project to fruition.

Though many community broadband efforts have a do-it-yourself component, B4RN has carried this further than any we've seen before. The result, project organizers hope, will be a model that reduces the cost of laying fiber by 90 percent, making fiber deployment affordable in the most rural areas.

B4RN's business plan explains the model:

"Laying new fibre optic cables all the way to remote rural properties is an expensive exercise. However, if a different ownership, funding and operating model is used instead of that traditionally deployed by the telecommunications companies and ISPs, the costs can be much reduced from the £10K headline figure per property quoted by the BSG in their report 5 to around £1K per property.

The vast majority of the cost of the fibre laying is for digging trenches, installing duct and fibre and then making good. Traditionally, telecommunications companies have used their code powers and installed duct under the highway or associated verges. This is expensive for several reasons, not least the high costs associated with complying with health and safety and the street works act. However, from their point of view this is a manageable process as issues around access and wayleaves are solved for them without having to negotiate with hundreds of landlords and regulatory bodies.

B4RN will adopt a different approach; we will lay the duct not on the highway but across the farmland on the other side of the wall. Digging a narrow trench and installing a duct within it is dramatically less expensive across private farmland than along the highway. The work can be done by agricultural workers and the farmers themselves; it’s not high technology, similar to laying a simple water or drainage pipe, which they do all the time. The combination of lower-cost labour and simple installation without the regulatory burden of the street works act and similar impediments results in a dramatic reduction in cost per metre installed. Of course, the costs of the materials will actually be rather higher than those paid by telcos due to our smaller scale of operations; however, this is much more than offset by the reduced laying costs. Where necessary, we will use the highways, but this should be for a small proportion of the duct length, mainly for road crossings and short sections where the farmland is either not available to us or unsuitable. We will be applying to OFCOM [the British regulatory agency] for Code Powers to permit us to do this in the same way as any other telecommunications company.

The big problem is that for this model to work the land owners must be prepared to grant free wayleaves to lay duct across their land. Clearly, they would refuse to do this if the applicant were a traditional telecommunications company out to make a profit, but if it were a community-owned cooperative run for the benefit of the community the story is different.

B4RN is going to be a company registered under the 1965 Industrial and Provident Society Act taking the Community Benefit option rather than the pure cooperative one. This reflects the fact that it will operate for the benefit of the community rather than its shareholders. However, it will need to issue shares to raise the capital needed. These would be withdrawable shares with a face value of £1 and only redeemable at par, there is no route for a capital gain. However the shares will attract annual
interest and offer tax relief where applicable, this should make them attractive to community investors.

The community benefit route also means there is an asset lock, which ensures that the network and any other company assets cannot just be sold off to another company but must be held for the benefit of the community. Given this structure and asset lock the majority of landowners contacted so far are prepared to grant free wayleaves, as it clearly benefits the community and they see no risk of anyone making a profit out of them.

In addition, the community cooperative model is one where we can expect members of the community to volunteer labour to help establish the network. As mentioned above, the work involved in laying fibre duct in a trench is well within the skill set of all farmers and agricultural workers. Our detailed planning work has shown that around 60% of the project costs will be for materials, but the remaining 40% is labour. So as well as granting wayleaves, we will be able to ask the farmers and landowners to dig the sections across their land by way of supporting the project. This work can be materially rewarded by granting them shares in B4RN to the value of the work. This in turn reduces the amount of actual capital we need to raise via shares issued to the community."


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