B4RN: creating community cash generator

"Where the State cannot deliver and the market cannot deliver, the community is providing.”

Broadband for Rural North (B4RN) is an innovative community-led project to bring superfast broadband ('FTTH') to domestic and business properties in rural Lancashire.

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Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) is the community’s internet service provider and a major phenomenon. Entirely funded by the 53 parishes it serves, it is providing 1Gbps symmetrical fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband as standard to rural homes and businesses in Lancashire, passing an estimated 5,000 properties and delivering service to over 2,300. It is currently installing around three to four kilometres of new fibre every week and average take up is running at 65 per cent.

Continuing to grow beyond the original 3,500 properties it was targeting, B4RN may well end up covering 25,000 to 30,000 homes and businesses, some of which may be located in Scotland along the route of its new fibre link to Edinburgh internet exchange, IXScotland.

Point Topic visited B4RN’s headquarters in Melling near Lancaster where we met Barry Forde MBE, one of the group’s founders and now Chief Executive. Forde explained how the group has achieved what it has so far, how it is adapting to manage its growing coverage and customer base, and offered his view on factors that have enabled the initiative’s success.

BACKGROUND

Broadband for the Rural North Ltd or B4RN as it has been termed was launched in December 2011 by a group of volunteers led by Barry Forde, who has many years of telecoms industry experience. It was registered as a community benefit society with the Financial Conduct Authority. The organisation can never be bought by a commercial operator and profits can only be distributed to the community.

The company’s initial share offering raised hundreds of thousands of pounds from the local community and the first dig took place in the village of Quernmore in March 2012. Regularly in the national media spotlight, B4RN has won recognition both in terms of its fibre deployment and as an energised community organisation, including receiving the Internet Service Providers Association ‘Internet Hero’ award and a visit from HRH The Prince of Wales. In 2015 both Forde and another founding member Chris Condor were included on the Queen’s Honours list and awarded MBEs. The team has since been expanded with new members bringing a diverse range of skills.

Key milestones for B4RN

Date Details
December 2011 Broadband for the Rural North Ltd established as a community benefit society
March 2012 Fibre deployment begins in Quernmore
October 2012 First properties go live
July 2012 Awarded ‘Internet Hero’ by ISPA
April 2015 Visit by HRH The Prince of Wales
June 2015 B4RN founders Barry Forde and Christine Conder each awarded an MBE
September 2015 Move to dedicated headquarters and storage facilities in Melling near Lancaster
April 2016 Granted Code Powers by Ofcom
May 2016 Begins to recruit in-house civils engineering team

HOW IT WORKS

B4RN is a non-profit organisation. It deploys its network into communities which have invited it to do so and which have raised the investment necessary to cover the labour and materials needed to cover that area. Volunteers carry out much of the work with the guidance of B4RN engineers, and support comes from local landowners and farmers. Each community’s investment comes predominantly from the issuing of shares in B4RN.

According to Forde, “Most of the B4RN network is being built by local volunteers and landowners who know their community and the lie of the land. Each area that rises to the B4RN challenge has found it a wonderfully empowering and a socially engaging opportunity.”

Volunteering

It has been clear for some time that B4RN is about more than just bringing superfast broadband to remote and rural communities. Its model taps into the heart of community action, enabling local people to help themselves, to plan, to organise and to carry out the physical work involved in laying fibre. Once build is complete and service live, some in this army of volunteers choose to continue their B4RN activities becoming involved in customer care and support, as well as helping neighbouring communities deploy fibre.

FIBRE FOR LONG TERM SOLUTION

Forde says that future proofing the network was essential to the B4RN project right from the start. Speaking earlier this year at INCA’s Gigabit Britain conference Forde stated: “The key is to have a vision people will buy into. This is not a short term temporary solution; you need to shock and awe people in the community with something that has a long term life, is state of the art and will stay state of art for 50 years. So we went for FTTH, building for several generations. In rural areas people do think long term; they do not like replacing things, so we went for pure fibre buried from day one.”

But can B4RN continue to expand as part of a solution to address the UK’s final five per cent for which superfast broadband is proving elusive? Or has it benefitted from a unique set of circumstances which mean there is a limit to its size and scope?  

FULL STORY

The full version of this report is included in Point Topic’s UK Plus service. Please contact Simona Pranulyte on +44 (0)20 3301 3303 or e-mail simona@point-topic.com for more details.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Background
  • The business model
    • Wayleave permission key to approach
    • Building an army of volunteers
    • Beginnings of a community project fund
  • The journey towards connection
  • Service and support
  • Growing the B4RN footprint
    • Network installation
  • Unique approach or a model for others?
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