The B4RN project has already connected 400 homes in the British countryside, and it's faster than the big guys.
All images by the author
Across a muddy field in what looks like it could be Hobbiton, but is actually the UK county of Lancashire, two small diggers excavate a trench about half a metre deep, roughly following the line of a dry stone wall. A group of locals watch eagerly, mindful not to trip over an orange cable lying nearby in the grass. This thin wire is going to bring them something they've lived without for a long time; something even the majority of city-dwellers don't have: hyperfast fibre optic broadband.
The parish of Borwick is hardly where you'd expect to find a grassroots techno-revolution. Not far from the historic city of Lancaster, it has a population of around 210, and is an example of archetypal British countryside. Look around and you'll see green fields in every direction, broken up only by leafy hedges and a healthy smattering of sheep. When I visit in early April, the trees are still spindly silhouettes, just starting to get their leaves, and newborn lambs lay close to their mothers. If it weren't for the odd power line and a nearby wind turbine, the scene could grace an Easter card from centuries past.
But while the landscape may be idyllic in its timeless charm, the residents of Borwick and the surrounding rural area are moving with the times—and looking toward the future. They're among the UK's rural residents who still lack a fast, reliable internet connection, and though they're geographically remote, they're keen to get connected.
Frustrated by the major internet service providers and failed attempts to get local government funding, they're going it alone. They're building their own fibre network—digging the routes, laying the fibre, splicing the wires—and it's not just superfast but hyperfast, bringing broadband speeds of one gigabit per second to every home.
The dig at Borwick.
"We had tried all sorts of other initiatives through the government and nothing had ever happened, so we thought, why not have a crack at solving the problem ourselves?" local resident Barry Forde told me. A 65-year-old retired networking expert with a professorial fellowship at Lancaster University, he leads the community broadband project B4RN, which is pronounced "barn" and stands for "Broadband for the Rural North."
The project started in 2011 with the publication of its business plan. Three years later, 400 of the target 3,500 users are connected, and the scheme has for the first time become financially sustainable. It's a cooperative model that isn't designed to make money; people pay an initial fee to get connected and a monthly rate for unlimited access, with any profits going back into the project.
In April, B4RN held their latest "show-tell day" at a local hotel, in conjunction with fibre product manufacturer Emtelle. The event attracted a crowd of interested parties, from white-haired residents of local parishes hoping to extend the network their way, to visitors from further afield who wanted to set up their own fibre networks. I went along to learn more about how the ragtag group of ruralites had managed to pull of what many told them was impossible with some good old-fashioned community spirit, a lot of elbow grease, and a little punk DIY attitude.
Rural internet came to national attention in the UK last month when a report by MPs revealed that all 44 local authority contracts to help provide rural communities with high-speed internet had been awarded to multinational British telecoms company BT, despite previous warnings that this stifled competition. MP Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee that wrote the report, said on its publication that "BT's monopoly position should have been a red flag for the Department. But we see the lack of transparency on costs and BT's insistence on non-disclosure agreements as symptomatic of BT's exploiting its monopoly position to the detriment of the taxpayer, local authorities and those seeking to access high speed broadband in rural areas."
Another MP brought the issue up with David Cameron during Prime Minister's Questions at the beginning of April. Alan Reid of Argyll and Bute in Scotland said that, while he approved of the government spending £1 billion on bringing superfast broadband to rural areas, his constituents "are very frustrated that BT cannot tell them when, or even if, their home will be connected, which makes alternative planning impossible."
This was the main gripe among B4RN's members throughout the day's discussions. They were less concerned as to whether they would be included in BT's rollout plans than simply getting an answer one way or the other. The problem is that, while the government has said it will connect 95 percent of the UK's homes and businesses to superfast broadband by 2017, quite which areas will be covered and when exactly that will happen isn't always clear. The PAC report highlighted the lack of detail in maps provided by local authorities, which aren't always clear about which areas will be included in the BT rollout.
"We are frustrated that we did not manage to get to the bottom of whether the disparity in the level of information released is due to conscious choices by local authorities over the level of information they want to publish, lack of available information, or due to confusion or restrictions over what BT would allow them to publish," the MPs wrote.
A BT spokesperson told me that if people were having trouble finding out if their areas would be covered, they should take it up with local authorities. "Again and again we've said the information is available to all the councils that we work with; the information's there, it's up to them whether they want to provide it or how they want to provide it," he said. He added that in some instances, details may be held back because surveys haven't yet been done, and so plans could change.
Whatever the reasons behind it, the frustration over inadequate information was echoed, rather vocally, by attendees at the B4RN meeting. "Getting information out of them is like getting blood out of a stone," complained one attendee, who said he had Freedom of Information requests out to try to get more details.
Barry Forde explained to me that, from the start, they've just wanted to know if they fall in that last five percent or not. "One of the big problems for getting any government grants is we have to prove that we're not in the existing broadband schemes," he said.
B4RN committee member Christine Conder, who wore a T-shirt with the slogan "I want fibre" and a necklace proclaiming "B4RN" in laser-cut letters, was outspoken on the issue. "When we applied for the funding we had to drill down and itemise every postcode we wanted funding for," she said. "We had to provide high definition maps of the area we were covering, and yet the councils aren't doing the same. It's just not a level playing field."
Unable to get any answers and frustrated by attempts to get funding that amounted to nothing, B4RN decided to stop wasting time with form-filling and to start digging. "In our case we've taken the philosophical view that we're going to have to do it ourselves," said Forde. "It's far too important to leave it to chance like that." If BT comes along in the future, they're not scared of the competition.
Most of the residents in B4RN's area do have internet access; it's just not very good. Wray village, whose first customers got connected to the B4RN network in January, was previously part of a "European Living Lab" project set up by the University of Lancaster. That used mesh technology to bring the village wireless broadband in 2004. "So we got that built, and that was when someone invented Youtube and the BBC brought out iPlayer," said Conder. (iPlayer is the BBC's internet television service, and was released in 2007.)
Soon the community's needs had changed, and suddenly a two megabit feed just wasn't enough. Residents would try to do their tax returns online or buy something on eBay, only for the connection to fail when the kids came home from school and went on Youtube. Many are still in the same position today. "And if you're logged out of the bank three times then you've got to go to the bank to get a new secret password or whatever, so everybody just gets so fed up with it," said Conder. The only other option is expensive satellite connections.
B4RN's Chris Conder shows off the ducting being dug in at Borwick.
Of course, not everyone in the community—particularly among the elderly population—sees the need for better broadband speeds. Given the barriers to access, many haven't made the leap to digital at all, and would rather get their tax disc from the post office and do their shopping in person. "Now the post offices are shut, they're too old to drive, and they can't do it online because they've never learned the skills," said Conder.
B4RN wants to pull the local population out of this analog funk and into the vanguard of hyperfast fibre. Forde and Conder admitted there's no need for anyone in the area to have speeds of a gigabit right now, but they were keen to future-proof their network and found that installing a gigabit made the most economic sense. And, to their great satisfaction, it means they're faster than BT.
The main reason B4RN is able to deliver these speeds comes down to the fibre. B4RN is a Fibre to the Home (FTTH) network, which means that fibre optic cables run all the way from the initial distribution point to individual properties. Most fibre broadband is instead delivered only as far as the street cabinet (FTTC), from which it connects to regular copper phone lines. It's cheaper to do it that way, but it slashes speeds.
"BT can't do a gigabit, and so we show off that we've got a gigabit," said Conder. "But it's meaningless, because what we really have is a fit-for-purpose connection for anything anybody wants to do." Forde said a connection to B4RN had been beneficial to his work on the project itself. "For instance, I look after all the big maps that are several hundred megabytes, and it's very nice to be able to keep them all in the cloud because then I can work on them," he said.
B4RN's Barry Forde explains how the cabinet works.
But for him, the big difference was that the network became "invisible." He no longer notices a difference between working in the cloud and working from a hard disk, and he doesn't have to videotape TV shows anymore because he can catch up online. "First it's, 'Wow this is amazing!' and then very quickly you take it completely for granted," he said. "But if someone tries to take it away from you, you fight tooth and nail, and you certainly realise how awful life was before you had it."
As part of the show-tell day, we took a bus tour around some of the B4RN network to see the work in action, which is how we came across the digging at Borwick. The bus, as well as the hotel conference room used for presentations and discussions throughout the day, was provided by Emtelle. They supply B4RN (and larger companies, including BT) with products like the PVC ducting the fibre runs through.
In Borwick, two young contractors were digging a trench to lay ducting to connect the next seven homes. They started at opposite ends of the field under the watchful eye of B4RN volunteer Keith Brady. Others dug a box-shaped hole next to the stone wall for the splice chamber, where each house's fibre is connected to the main route.
As we watched, the digger nearest the house turned up some broken plastic with the mud. It had hit a storm drain, and volunteers jumped in with shovels to help clear the way so it could be patched. A while later, the second digger stopped; it had sliced through a water pipe. The young driver jumped out and held the flow with a finger until someone brought some string to tie it off.
The main challenge with rural internet—and the reason it's not of great interest to big companies from a business perspective—is the sheer distance the cable has to travel to reach just a small number of properties. "One of our digs was 18 kilometres and it only passed 20 properties," said Conder. "A property a kilometre is not economical, but it was our route through to two villages so we still had it to do."
More difficult than digging the route—which just requires the right equipment, decent weather, and volunteers who aren't afraid to get a bit muddy—is navigating the permissions to do so. Digging through roads is particularly tricky, not to mention expensive, so B4RN chose to embrace their rural surroundings and go cross-country; then it's just a matter of getting landowners' permissions.
Most landowners in B4RN's footprint are farmers, and Forde explained in his morning presentation that it's usually just a matter of persuading them of the benefits and reassuring them that no one will profit from the scheme.
Community goodwill is essential to getting people onboard. Forde asks the farmers to sign a one-sided document and they work out which route is best to take across their land. "All it is really is something more than a gentleman's agreement," said Forde. Navigating things like road and river crossings is a little more complicated, and in the discussion session one person asked if you needed permission for that kind of thing. "Not if you do it on a dark night," he said.
Conder demonstrates how to splice fibre.
Actually connecting the buried fibres is an art that several of the B4RN volunteers have become quite practiced at. The splice chamber, also known as a "bullet," is where the seven millimetre cables for each house are connected to the main route. In the case of the trench I saw being dug, the main route came in from another chamber a few hundred metres away and would end up at a distribution cabinet outside the village hall.
Once the holes are dug, the volunteers lay in the ducting, and then a special machine "blows" the fibre through it. The essential processes of physically building the network are remarkably low-tech, though there are challenges to overcome.
Back at the hotel later, Conder led a splicing demonstration on a practice bullet. First, the fibre is blown through the plastic ducting from the house to the chamber using a special machine that pushes 55 metres of fibre a minute through the cables, using air pressurised to 15 bar. We watched the fibre coil through the twisted wires until it hit the bullet.
With a practiced eye, Conder showed how to nick the plastic coating off the fibre and rub off any grease. "You've got to clean it 'til it sings," she said. One fibre is taken from the main cable that enters into the chamber for each fibre coming from a separate house. Conder showed how to line the two fibres up carefully in a portable splicer, a machine that uses heat to fuse them together in a connection barely noticeable to the human eye. The cleaner the connection, the less speed is lost, and each splice has to pass B4RN's quality control test before having a plastic splice protector heated on to strengthen the joint and being neatly tucked into the bullet. That, she said, was the hard bit—and an ideal job for the dexterous fingers of crocheters or knitters.
Conder's specialty is fixing the "pigtail joints" inside the fibre transition units at people's houses—the small white boxes attached to the buildings' walls—and she demonstrated that too, lighting the fibre at one end to show how the light shone through and highlighted any bends or breaks.
I asked how Conder learned to do the splicing; did she have experience beforehand? No, she said; she was "just a farmer's wife" who also worked as a hairdresser. She went on a splicing training course with a couple of other B4RN volunteers, "just for a day out really," and took it from there. "Nobody teaches anybody anything; if you want to know anything you just google it, don't you?" she said. Where they have better connection, they can now Youtube it too.
Attendees watch the fibre get blown through the ducting in a bullet.
After leaving the diggers to get on with their work, we took the bus down a winding lane to the distribution cabinet at the local village hall, the first one B4RN installed. Going to the olive green cabinet, we were essentially following the fibre cables that went into people's homes further back towards the source. The cabinet connects the fibres from each splicing chamber to a main line leased from Geo, a top tier fibre network. This line connects to a Telecity data centre in Manchester, where B4RN keeps its network equipment.
Forde said the B4RN network currently has six cabinets, and will end up with around 17. He explained that this cabinet got a total of about 160 gigabits from the Geo connection, and that they could give someone a 10 gigabit connection to their home tomorrow—though they'd charge for such a service, as demanding 10 gigabits for todays requirements would be pure machismo.
Distribution cabinets are key to getting high speed internet; if you're not near one, you'll have trouble getting fibre. That's not just a problem in rural communities. I spoke to Damian Belson, who was attending the B4RN open day to gather information for his own community—in central London. He's part of a group in Rotherhithe, a residential area in Southwark, that's trying to sort out their inadequate broadband speeds. Despite being an urban area, he said that many residents still only had speeds around and under five megabits.
The problem, they discovered, was that they didn't have any cabinets near them, so they couldn't get the standard FTTC technology. Some of the larger buildings are able to get a fibre connection straight to the exchange, bypassing the need for a cabinet, but the cost makes that unfeasible for individual homes.
As an urban community, they won't be included in the government-backed push for rural coverage, and are looking at other options. The demographics of the area are also very different, and Belson said the immigrant Asian community were playing a large role in the campaign. "They're kind of one of the drivers, because they're used to incredibly fast broadband," he said. "I guess they just assumed being in central London they'd get very fast broadband."
Another initiative represented at the open day was Wansdyke Telecom, from northeast Somerset. Director Evan Wienburg explained that while the area was rural, it was much more populated than the B4RN region, and home to a lot of city commuters rather than farmers. Many of them, too, were dealing with speeds in the low single figures of megabits per second. Wienburg said they'd heard every excuse for the poor service, and after they heard about the B4RN initiative, "it took about all of three nanoseconds to realise that we had to do something about it ourselves." With a footprint of around 40,000 properties, he said Wansdkye could never emulate B4RN's volunteer-based effort and is necessarily more commercial in outlook. They've currently connected a couple of buildings as a demo, and are waiting to roll out to their first commercial village.
Meanwhile, B4RN continues to grow at a steady pace. When the group was starting out, funding was their main problem, and they're now in a more comfortable position, having connected enough people that the project covers its costs. "Our operating costs amount to around £100,000 a year, so we need 333 customers paying £30 a month," said Forde. B4RN users pay an initial connection fee of £150, then £30 a month for an "all you can eat" service with no caps on use. With 400 connected and counting, Forde said they could now continue "ad nauseum."
They still need to raise a chunk of capital to buy equipment each time they expand to the next parish, however. Conder recalled that when B4RN first set up in 2011, they held public meetings in each parish and asked people to register their interest, before launching a share issue. People in the community buy shares—usually around £1,500 each, with the odd investment of £10,000—to cover the costs of buying products like the fibre and ducting. Once the network is big enough, money made will go toward paying back the shareholders.
One of the next places that hopes to get connected to the B4RN network is around seven kilometres from the current dig in Borwick. Tim Mackintosh works on B4YS, which represents the local parishes of Silverdale, Storth, and the Yealands. B4YS is in a similar position to B4RN when it first started; their first mission is to spread the word and get enough people interested to start digging. To do this, Mackintosh said he'd first started an IT group at the local library with the ulterior motive of getting more people interested in hyperfast internet—"because there's lots of retired people in the area, and there's a lot of people whose children give them laptops and they use them as doorstops."
As well as his self-described "subversive subgroup," B4YS recently won £3,000 funding from AONB (the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, of which Silverdale is one), which they've used to promote their efforts. They used some of it, for instance, to buy a wireless printer, and Mackintosh said they're going to print the first ever colour spread in the Silverdale parish magazine, "to shock and awe the community."
A retired adult educator, he said the main attraction for him wasn't just the promise of better internet access, but the community aspect. "That's the future: Communities have got to stand or fail by the way in which they support one another," he said. "We're a geographically identified community, it's natural that we're going to look to ourselves to help ourselves—and B4RN just gives us the tools to do that for the next 30 years."
Barry Forde is keen for other communities to learn from B4RN and set up themselves, and all of B4RN's resources, from their maps to their business plan, are freely available online. "Everything that we've done is in a public domain so anyone can just plagiarise,"he said. "Well, plagiarise would be the wrong word, because we encourage them to recycle, re-use our work."
As I learned more about how B4RN operated and what barriers they were faced with to pull themselves out of the broadband slow lane, the most remarkable thing I kept returning to was that they'd actually done it. Where the country's largest ISPs were still dithering, a community of country folk decided they'd simply had enough, and just got on with it. Through sheer determination, they'd not only brought a fit-for-purpose internet connection to their rural homes; they'd built a network that would be the envy of most city dwellers.
As we admired their handiwork at the cabinet, I overheard one visitor ask Forde how the group ever managed to get the project off the ground. "I think a mixture of bloody-mindedness and insanity," he replied.