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Fibre altnet B4RN may get code powers to build out network

Ofcom has started a consultation to give community-backed fibre-to-the-premises altnet B4RN new powers to roll out its network on a wider scale

Non-profit community broadband supplier Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), which specialises in building gigabit fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) networks, may be granted new powers to plan and extend its network footprint following an Ofcom consultation.

It has submitted an application to the regulator for code powers under the Communications Act of 2003, which would allow it to deploy services faster and with less red tape.

Code powers allow network builders to build and maintain infrastructure on streets without needing to obtain a specific street works licence, give them immunity from town and country planning legislation, and let them apply to the courts to obtain rights to execute works on private land if agreement cannot be reached with landowners.

A number of telecoms operators such as BT and Virgin Media hold code powers, but they have also been granted to smaller FTTP providers such as Gigaclear and Hyperoptic, utilities such as Thames Water, and owners of large-scale private networks such as Network Rail.

B4RN was launched at the end of 2011 by a volunteer group and has already connected more than 1,500 customers to gigabit broadband services in Lancashire, North Yorkshire and Cumbria. It currently owns and maintains around 1,000km of duct and is growing at around 100 connections a month.

According to the consultation document, B4RN plans to expand deeper into its core geographies, which may include those areas of Cumbria left high and dry by the failure of the FibreGarDen project. Subject to other community groups joining up, it aims to break out of the north-west of England in the future.

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Its submission laid out a number of well-accepted benefits of ultrafast FTTP broadband, including more opportunities for local small and medium enterprises, including farmers, and wider digital inclusion. It already offers free services to places of worship, and hopes to do the same for primary schools.

“The applicant has suggested that it has seen businesses moving into the areas served by its network as they are able to get better broadband from the applicant than in towns,” said Ofcom’s document.

“Ofcom considers that granting the applicant code powers would benefit the public.”

Permission to dig

Barry Forde, B4RN chief executive, told Computer Weekly that because of its rapid growth B4RN’s biggest problem was getting permission to dig up and cross roads under Section 50 of the 1991 New Roads and Street Works Act.

B4RN works in Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire, and increasingly struggles with the various ways that each local authority interprets the Section 50 rules, and the terms and conditions it has to observe to obtain the needed permissions.

Forde said that having code powers would allow B4RN to work around this problem, and would probably make the difference between passing 500 properties within the next 12 months, and passing 3,000.

Ad hoc expansion

He confirmed that further expansion was on the cards for B4RN, but added that its community-based model meant this tended not to happen on an explicitly planned basis.

“Every time we do a parish, the neighbouring parish promptly wakes up and want to join in,” he said. “This is no problem for us because the parishes raise the cash, so there is no fundamental limit to where we can go, and we have tended to expand willy-nilly around our periphery.”

However, he said that he doubted that many other community broadband projects would apply for code powers, either because they were addressing only very small areas, or because they tended to contract the work to companies that already have code powers, such as Gigaclear.

Separately, Ofcom has launched a consultation to give code powers to Hibernia Networks in support of a new transatlantic fibre optic cable build between New York and London. Although most of this project will consist of subsea cables, Hibernia said it needed to upgrade its backhaul network in the UK from its landing point in Somerset.

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