Villagers and farmers could soon have access to digital "parish pumps" if ideas set out over the weekend to deliver high-speed broadband to Cumbrian communities are fulfilled. But politics at national and local levels may make it harder than it need be.
This emerged from a conference aimed at giving Cumbria close to universal access to high speed broadband by 2012, and possibly 100Mbps access by 2015.
The conference came a day before the International Telecommunications Union called on world leaders to commit their countries to make access to high-speed broadband a basic human right and to treat it as essential to economic growth.
Several speakers proposed installing optical fibre links to street cabinets in nearly all Cumbrian villages, and to allow villagers to decide and pay for the wireless or fibre link from the cabinet to their homes and/or businesses. Villagers could dig and install the (fibre) ducts themselves, they said.
Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and The Border, who organised the conference, said there were a number of proposals to give Cumbria "next generation access" (NGA). He said Huawei, one of the conference sponsors, had offered to provide equipment for street cabinets for the project.
"Virgin Media had offered to 'light up' Temple Sowerby (an Eden Valley village about 12km east of Penrith). British Telecom has come in with a bid for the whole constituency, and Commemdium too has a very exciting idea about using the electric pylons," he said.
Most local speakers on the platform and the floor supported the proposal, with many indicating impatience with BT's service up to now.
Bill Murphy, CEO of Openreach, the regulated BT division responsible for communications infrastructure, said he was looking for £10m in public money to build a pilot high-speed broadband network to serve 85,000 premises in Cumbria in 30 months, less than 20% of the region's population.
He also indicated a willingness to compete for the business. "It is not about the technology; it is about the services and the business models that support and sustain it. If we do bid for something, we go to win," he said.
The conference attracted 264 delegates and two American speakers who described how the US formulated its $7.2bn national broadband plan, and how it plans to deliver broadband access to rural communities.
Cumbria is one of a number of local authorities bidding to host one of three pilot studies funded by Broadband Delivery UK. BDUK’s aim is to identify reproducible technologies and processes that deliver a minimum 2Mbps broadband service.
Official statistics suggest that up to one-third of the population might never get high-speed broadband without public sector support. This is because they live too far from a BT street cabinet to make the required investment economically viable.
Some 99% of Cumbrians have access to a 2Mbps broadband service as a result of the £26m Project Access contract that BT won. But as more people have subscribed to the service, it has degraded to the point where some receive a 50kbps or less service at busy times.
There are also a number of short-distance fibre networks, some of which use the Cleo (Cumbrian and Lancaster Education Online) schools fibre network for backhaul. But these are capped by restrictions on the use of public sector networks by "civilians".
BDUK has some £200m from the unspent money set aside for the Digital Switchover for TV broadcasts, and access to around £1bn from the government's Next Generation Fund.
It plans to use some of this to fund the three pilots that were announced at the broadband industry day in July, and to use it to attract matching fund from suppliers, the government's Rural Development Programme and the European Commission's various development funds.