Rural broadband – should residents pay?

With government funding and commercial plans only reaching 90% of the population, is it the right move for residents to take their broadband connections into their own hands?

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Jeremy Hunt's promise in 2010 that the UK would lead Europe with its broadband infrastructure within five years raised a few eyebrows.

No one was against the sentiment of rolling out broadband to every home in the UK by 2015 – even if they weren’t so happy with the minimum speed of 2Mbps – but it seemed like a mammoth task for the government to achieve alone.

Hunt expected the private sector to get on board, and while the likes of BT and Virgin Media were happy to continue their deployments of fibre infrastructure across the more profitable areas of the UK, acres of rural locations on this green and pleasant land were left wanting when it came to internet connections.

The past two years have been spent debating what the answer should be to fill in these dead spots across the British landscape and trialling schemes to try to fix the problem, but this week has been about reporting back to the Houses of Parliament on what has or hasn’t been a success.

Rory Stewart, Conservative MP for Penrith and the Borders, has been one of the cheerleaders of rural broadband, and as such has worked with a number of communities to find the best answer for getting connections to remote areas.

Current government schemes have focused on a central procurement process by local councils from large telecoms companies and have cost millions of pounds. However, Stewart has been involved in trials which cost significantly less by using more innovative technologies and getting residents to invest in their own infrastructure.

“The assessments vary, but it costs between £10bn and £40bn for centralised procurement to deliver fibre to every home,” he said. “The government has decided to spend £550m.

“Communities such as Great Asby [a village in Cumbria which has run its own broadband scheme] have dropped this cost dramatically to £60,000.”

“The very sad thing here is while enormous progress has been made…to get broadband [that was] unimaginable to these communities a few years ago…it is still a problem getting this tiny sum of money from government to fund it.”

Funding rural broadband connections

It seems the only way these schemes have got off of the ground is by local residents digging their hands in their own pockets to pay for the infrastructure. But is it right for them to pay their own way when it comes to broadband, or should both the public and private sector be providing funding for rural parts of the country?

Chris Conder, founding member of B4RN (Broadband 4 Rural North), admitted there was little money left in government coffers to increase its contribution and that these areas were not commercially viable for companies such as BT.

People in rural areas should have the same rights of access to the internet as the rest of the population

Martyn Dews, committee member, B4RN

However, rather than residents paying up front to make the broadband roll-out happen, she believed in a suggestion raised by Stewart of a “soft loan” from the public sector to get the ball rolling.

The idea is government could lend the money to communities to get set up, and each household that signs up to the scheme can pay it back over a long period of time with little interest. This removes the risk from spending taxpayers’ money on unproven technical innovations, but enables rural areas to go ahead with plans that could otherwise be delayed indefinitely while money is raised.

“There would have to be some community participation to keep the costs down to an affordable level,” Conder told Computer Weekly. “Communities will do it if they believe in the project; they don't expect anything for nothing and they will contribute, but there is a limit.

“Soft loans that spread the load over many years would be a great incentive and very 'big society'. Some members of rural society wouldn't be able to contribute, either health-wise or [due to] poverty, but others will, and it gives a great feeling of satisfaction to help each other.”

Equal rights to internet access

Fellow B4RN committee member Martyn Dews staunchly believed it should not be down to citizens to pay for this, telling Computer Weekly that “people in rural areas should have the same rights of access to the internet as the rest of the population”.

However, he accepted that with the lack of commercial viability and the relatively small amount of government funding, it was a case of “putting up with what is provided or doing it themselves”.

“If it's done right and there is enough support, the community will get the payback in the medium to long term,” said Dews. “Imagine a deeply rural community with a 1,000Mbps connection – one of the best in the world. That is what B4RN is delivering now. Think of the possibilities that will open up.”

Unsurprisingly, BT is keen on communities getting on board with their own deployments, but believed residents should be more active in seeking out the set-up costs from government.

“We’ve always been very clear that we believe that local communities can make a substantial contribution to bring fibre to their area,” a BT spokesman told Computer Weekly. “We have publicly encouraged them to engage with their local authority and central government in lobbying for funds.”

He admitted, however, that the funds on offer from both private and public sector contributors would only cover 90% of the population, leaving the final 10% on their own.

The only way BT is going to put up more of its own investment though is if it is the chosen provider for government schemes.

“We have indicated we would be willing to invest further funds – of up to £1bn – should we win many of the public funds on offer,” added the spokesperson.

A number of residents from Alston, another Cumbrian village which has taken on its own broadband infrastructure, have contacted Computer Weekly to pledge their support for paying their own way.

However it was made clear by both residents and campaigners that it would not be their first choice. All believed, as Dews stated, that they should be given the same provisions as the rest of the country, but rather than waiting for more money from government and the private sector, it was more beneficial to get on with the task at hand and put in their own money.     

Neither government, commercial operations or campaigners will state it is the right thing for residents to pay for their own broadband, but all accept it may be the only way to get everyone connected while purse strings remain tight.

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