Many communities are frustrated with the state of their broadband – both the current service and prospects for the future. People often want something positive to campaign for, rather than just shouting in frustration at the BDUK campaign, the town hall or their MP. But it can seem a baffling policy space, with many interlocking issues. So I have compiled a broadband blueprint for people who want to campaign for positive change in their community. This draws on the experience of many local broadband campaigners and my own work on public policy.
You can mix and match bits of the blueprint to suit your own community and use it to lobby your local BDUK campaign or to work with local volunteers or telecoms companies. The blueprint calls in particular for town halls and the big telecoms companies to see the problems of rural broadband from a citizen perspective and work with local people in their farms, towns and villages rather than trying to impose solutions upon them from on high. It also calls for the authorities to think ‘total broadband’ – not just superfast, not just down phone lines. For many communities 10Mbs and a ‘ping’ below 100Ms would be a lifesaver.
I have pasted the whole blueprint in below or you can download it as a PDF file or a word document. Why not adapt it for your community and get the Parish Council or similar body to adopt it as a policy statement? The blueprint started life as a ‘broadband manifesto’ and I am grateful to all who commented or discussed it. I shall update it again as necessary -keep an eye on this blog. If you would like to talk it over drop me a mail firstname.lastname@example.org or put something in the comments below.
Rural Broadband Blueprint
- How can I get broadband to my house in the middle of a field? This question set me off on a journey to writing this rural broadband blueprint – part manifesto, part white paper. This agenda is written from a human perspective, rather than the top down, corporate, technology, policy and regulation perspective that pervades the baffling broadband debate. It draws on my experience of a broadband campaign in rural Oxfordshire. I was a civil servant for 15 years working in DTI, DCMS, Downing Street, Cabinet Office on a range of policy areas. I am now a consultant, advisor, charity trustee and non-executive Director. I have worked for both government and the Opposition as a non-partisan expert.
Broadband policy and implementation must be user-focused
- Citizens first – The excluded rural citizen should be put the heart of the broadband subsidy process and solutions designed with them. The needs and circumstances of the last 5% are so varied that people there need to be empowered to lead the process. The rural broadband campaign should become demand and need led, not supplier driven. The Government proselytises the new Government Digital Service and its drive for ‘user focused design’ rather than lumpen supplier driven IT programmes. This practice now needs to apply to the BDUK programme, that seems to do broadband to people rather than work with them.
- Empower at a local level – for the last 5% prioritisation of spending needs to be more local than the County Hall. Companies employed by town hall contractors (often ex BT Openreach project managers) work largely in secret with telecoms companies (mainly BT/Openreach) in their BDUK contract on where to build superfast infrastructure based on number of ‘homes passed’. Then they tell people where the money will be spent. If we can trust parishes and neighbourhoods to govern their physical environment through neighbourhood plans, then we can do the same for their digital infrastructure, working with the County or where the BDUK money is held. Priority should be given to communities that have organised and made a case that they need high speed internet rather than the ‘homes passed’ measure..
- Aggregate demand to improve supply: hundreds, possibly thousands of communities are lobbying for better broadband. Knowledge of this demand is held in obscure places – BT, BSkyB and Talk Talk’s complaints systems, OFCOM’s inbox, MP and councillor inboxes and surgeries, DCMS correspondence, DEFRA’s online service help desk, local newspapers, and online forums like ISPReview. Lack of a clear demand map when demand is atomised across the country raises the barriers to market entry. This makes it hard for smaller companies to respond and people and government to organise. The government should put power in the hands of citizens by supporting the development of a map where people can report where they want to have broadband and can tell their stories and run campaigns. Such a service, industry wide could become a rallying point for local activists and politicians and could become an interface for talking with the broadband providers. It would be a matter days or of weeks to produce such a website.
- Help broadband campaigners talk to the big telcos and the government – it’s nearly impossible for a regular citizen to get through the huge barriers of corporate call centres to have a sensible conversation about their local broadband with either the bigger telcos, bits of government running BDUK contracts or people who own government infrastructure. This results in a chaotic, inefficient process of frustration driven protest. This could mean each telco having a clear POC for local broadband infrastructure or perhaps finding a place online or two where the conversations can happen such as a neutral forum. A forum might also help people learn from conversations others have had already. Perhaps this is something that could be run by a trade association such as the MOOA.
- Retire ‘homes passed’: Money for new broadband infrastructure is largely fed into the BDUK contracts. Decisions on where it is spent to extend the network are made on a ‘number of homes’ passed formula. Regardless of whether those homes have expressed any need – it’s supply driven. The criteria for allocating money often used in the BDUK process should be retired. This cod-utilitarianism is presented as a ‘rational criterion’ that ‘takes politics out of decisions’ ignoring that fact that the world isn’t rational and that it just causes more political problems. It’s the wrong way of prioritising in the last 5%. Utilitarianism should only ever be used as a guide and not taken to the extremes.
Connect, inform and empower people to help themselves
- A switch to user-driven broadband deployment requires some support for users to inform, organise and resource themselves. Broadband campaigns are a new form of community activity and there are few local skills to draw upon. Information about existing infrastructure and options is scarce. Once organised and informed, democratic voices calling for broadband need to engage with government and telcos in regular accountability mechanisms.
- Better advice – people do not know that there are alternative solutions to just railing at BT and their councillor/MP. If you are off the gas or sewerage network then there is plenty of information about your options from consumer advice services and your neighbours. For broadband that isn’t the case. People need better actionable advice on their options online and for serious campaigns, in person. There are intermediaries who could provide this role. The Community Broadband Scotland model has a small network of advisors who work with broadband community campaigns across the Highlands and Islands to help connect them with technology providers and finance. This could be replicated at a county or regional level in England as an efficient way of sharing expertise.
- Be open about how much money is available and who will be left out: It’s unlikely that the government has the money to reach everyone, rural communities may have to raise money to pay communal capital costs for modern telecoms or pay more variable costs. If a community can see a clear costs target or a ball park figure they have a far better chance of working out what to do and how big a totaliser they need outside the church. People will have to compete for scarce resources in a complex environment. The country will get the best result if the government and the regulator works with the companies to help people compete in the most informed way possible. The secrecy of the BDUK contracts and BT’s side deals with self-funded communities means that striking a deal can’t be done in an efficient way.
- Respond to democratic voices: Where there is a clear democratic or campaigning voice to bring broadband to a community this should be met as a priority. In spending public money a democratic voice should be recognised.
- Be open about network build uncertainty, not secretive: people understand that building things in the countryside is difficult, it’s part of rural life. But rumour swirls about whether cabinet X will be in or out of the next phase often without any official statement. Open information puts people on a level playing field. Officers and contractors in each project should simply describe publicly on a blog the issues they encounter as the network rolls out and they find silted ducts or a dead badger in a cabinet.
- Be open about where masts and antennae are – 4G is transformative and for some 3G would be ten times faster than their unreliable 0.5 Mb/s DSL. But you can’t reliably find out which companies are on your local masts and how to lobby them to improve their service. OFCOM’s old ‘sitefinder’ service used to help identify local transmitters, which in the countryside are often GPRS. But it has decayed due to disputes with mobile companies. Sitefinder needs to be restored and brought up to date.
- Open up the contracts – BT and other providers need to choose to be more open about the prices they pay or charge as a condition of being in receipt of public money. The government should find a way to public the contracts in full including prices. There’s a common absurdity that BT makes a local body sign a gagging clause in a contract to enable some cabinets, but one can find out the amounts and nature of the work by finding the minutes of parish council meetings in the pre-negotiation where the costs are spelled out.
- Close the accountability gap for broadband expenditure: Accountability needs to be nailed to where the decision to spend central government broadband money is taken – the executive member responsible for the brief in the County Council. It seems odd that MPs queue up to lambast the Minister in the House when he doesn’t take local procurement decisions. Publishing a list of responsible councillors and their email addresses would be a good start – who is Mr Broadband for your county?
- Vouchers are inefficient where there is no market – there will be a temptation for government to empower users by distributing vouchers as a partial market solution. However household vouchers for rural broadband infrastructure will fail to be efficient: there is huge information asymmetry in rural broadband preventing informed choice, infrastructure is a collective endeavour like a public good where there is greater utility from acting together in a collective consumption decision with all the costs and difficulties that implies than acting alone. The micro-economics of public goods are pretty dismal – where there are external benefits to the consumption decision the market tends to a below-optimal output decision. Vouchers have their place but need careful application.
- Encourage self help – many communities will be best served by a self help model that they build themselves, tailored to local need in a genuinely user-led exercise. The work of projects such as B4RN are exemplary and the committee will no doubt study them. TV transmission reached the last 10% or so in part through a network of self–help transmitters often funded, lobbied for and sometimes installed by local transmitter clubs, specifically licenced by the Home Office from 1980 onwards. A network of skilled amateurs ran such sites until digital switch over and some still do. The government needs to look at how we can catalyse self-help broadband (by microwave radio or digging trenches for fibre) to become a much more common solution. Such as the work by Carnegie UK Trust and the Plunkett Foundation in 2013 which set out an approach for the final 10%, largely based on intermediaries working on behalf of local communities to finance and manage delivery of infrastructure. This will clearly work for some areas but the government seems to be unaware of it.
- Open up more sources of finance – there are plenty of grant-makers who fund activity in the countryside. They just don’t fund broadband. Communities need to raise money locally to buy broadband infrastructure (usually in the range £10-50k) but it isn’t clear who might fund this. Funding bids for broadband will be novel to grant makers and even banks. Simple guidance is required and stimulus of traditional grant makers – if the Lottery will fund a scout hut there’s no reason why it can’t fund a community not for profit to hire telecoms consultants for scoping work or to install broadband infrastructure. Such scoping work would easily come under the £10k limit for Awards for All. The lottery distributers also makes larger grants for more traditional community infrastructure (re-building the village hall) and Big Lottery Fund has funded several large broadband projects in the past. How can grant makers make it clear that they will accept proposals for community-led broadband from say Parish bodies or not for profit vehicles. Can Cabinet Office lead work in the sector to help other charitable grant makers understand the need and how to make intelligent grants to support rural broadband? Or provide examples of how crowd funding platforms can be used.
- Acknowledge the rural multiplier – there are far greater benefits in connecting someone who has a flaky 0.5Mb/s to a functioning digital infrastructure for the first time then in connecting someone who can already get 15Mbs to a superfast 25Mb/s. Yet this doesn’t seem to be acknowledged in business cases for broadband investment and could change the balance of funding.
Co-ordinate don’t compete in rural areas
- The market has unambiguously failed for the last few million homes, hence the massive subsidy regime, signed off by the EU – this needs to be recognised more fully in aspects of regulation and procurement and doesn’t sit easily with decades of regulating for competition.
- A new rural broadband pact Government and OFCOM needs to attempt a new pact between the companies that will receive public money to work with the last 5% for whom the market has demonstrably failed. This pact should focus on information sharing and transparency between the companies and the citizens they hope to serve. This means much more clarity about who will and who won’t invest where – essentially a suspension of competition in recognition that ‘the market’ won’t work. It’s easy for BT’s behaviours for instance to be seen as predatory – say where a small microwave provider was delivering a service because BT wasn’t a miraculous cleaning of blocked duct suddenly enables the upgrading of a cabinet in an area, skimming off a good number of customers.
- Think ‘total broadband’ embracing all technologies and bandwidths including mobile. The ‘technology neutral’ approach has led to a lot of DSL, which the market incumbent already had the infrastructure for. There are signs of this changing in the right direction – such as the BDUK microwave contract for Dartmoor and Exmoor. But projects such as B4RN show that, in the right circumstances fibre and other technologies can work where they are written off as too expensive in traditional business cases. The Mobile Infrastructure Project could bring 4G to many marginal areas, or provide a lever for investing in backhaul to remote mast sites but isn’t clearly connected to the BDUK work in town halls. Also for many rural communities it isn’t about superfast – for the next few years they need 10Mb/s and a decent ping – the sort of thing 3G or microwave can provide
- Incentivise and understand small alternative network providers (altnets) who have been largely over-looked for subsidy. Altnets, especially using microwave radio provide a cheaper, quicker more nimble alternative to BT in driving usable digital infrastructure to marginal rural areas. The government erred in not helping the small altnets grow under the early phases of BDUK work – it is only now starting to fund and court them. The government could run some sort of industry sponsorship programme to grow altnets in the way is has for SMEs in other industries – BIS has a rich playbook of options that can be applied to a strategic national industry without infringing EU telcoms regulations.
- Opening up the Mobile Infrastructure Project will make it work better – this opaque project to put masts in ‘not spots’ seems to be in difficulties with apparently less than a dozen masts in operation – government and Arqiva it’s £150m contractor should be far more open about where it is planning masts and open this up to local comment and influence (see demand mapping above). Many of the obstacles facing MIP apparently arise from local land use planning and ownership. An open approach that engages local communities as part of a total broadband plan can address this. If a community that needs broadband knows what is going on it will be able to influence planning. In a rural area it’s usually the same people campaigning for broadband who are involved in local planning issues. Similarly, if any telco thinks it is being held to ransom for access to a site needed for a mast or to upgrade a mast for 3G or 4G, then it should just be transparent about it with the local broadband campaign. They will almost certainly be able to lobby the landowner. It isn’t clear that MIP is working with the BDUK contracts at a local level. If a community can get 4G (with decent backhaul from the mast) it might not need to be a priority for BDUK or other local broadband.
- Communities need to resolve planning barriers that they may have created – ten years ago mobile phone masts in rural areas were a common target for planning campaigns. A focus that has recently shifted to wind turbines. Where possible community campaigns should make it clear that they will listen sympathetically to the need for planning permission for new local broadband infrastructure. This could be reflected in neighborhood plans.
- Open up government’s own assets that taxpayers have paid for – Cabinet Office has mapped-out public sector digital infrastructure. This is a good first step but isn’t actually usable yet. The next stage is to take the user perspective – ‘I am in a farm in Yorkshire with no broadband. I can see the ECML, how can I benefit from the government fibre running alongside it?’ . This requires a comprehensive interconnection regime that is, in itself the key to greater savings within government as well as providing benefit to the public. This will need to address perceived security issues. From a grass roots perspective you wouldn’t know where to start when trying to get onto government infrastructure. At the very least Cabinet Office could set up a mailbox as a point of contact and create a network of contacts to which they could pass requests for access. There may be other government assets that could be used in rural areas – such as local army bases and their radio specialists who could help community groups rig-up a microwave solution. Or police or blue light service masts. Even tall government buildings can be helpful for mounting community antenna.
- Community preferential access to telecoms infrastructure – it’s expensive and cumbersome for a community group seeking a radio broadband solution to get on a mast or government building. In connect8.org mast access fees are the balancing factor in determining project viability. Can major mast operators such as Arqiva deliver a simple, ultra cheap, simple tariff and access arrangements for community schemes on their properties? Arqiva suggests on their website that it may have a community tariff but what this is and how to access it isn’t transparent.
- Prioritise community requests and reduce rates for backhaul – Openreach and government networks in remote areas (the army, police, airwave, network rail etc) should prioritise requests for backhaul from local networks in the last 10%. This means co-ordination and clearing of backhaul requests for networks serving community projects so that they are served ahead of the queue. Almost everyone relies on BT for some component of their backhaul. But they have to strike a commercial deal for it. Can OFCOM broker a voluntary arrangement for interconnect to wholesale services for backhaul at a reduced rate for community projects, even where they are delivered for the community by a telco.
- Target BDUK claw-back on the hardest to reach – the BDUK contracts recover savings from BT as roll out progresses and plough them back into upgrading the next most viable areas according to the ‘homes passed’ formula. This money would better be used in jumping the queue and working out how to connect the least viable areas in a county. This would help drive BT into constructing more viable models for the hardest to reach. Or perhaps releasing the money for others to use in community campaigns – ie taking some areas out of the BDUK programme and giving them the money to spend in another way.
- Tackling rural infrastructure dilapidation – universal service for DSL – in so many rural areas the telecoms infrastructure is physically worn out and can’t reliably carry DSL. The lines have been battered by trees (BT stopped organising trimming of hedges below phone lines 15 years ago and is now paying the price as trees have grown up to eat the line) and heavy weather. Cabinets have filled up gradually and not been expanded and there is no incentive for Openreach to keep the kit up to date. This could be tackled by Putting DSL on a par with voice and converting the confusing (to meaningless) universal service commitment of 2mb/s by 2016 into a binding universal service obligation for BT. This could tackle dilapidated, overloaded rural telecoms infrastructure that won’t be served by the planned superfast roll out and either can’t carry 2mb/s at present or is out of capacity. This will be hugely expensive and controversial if delivered nationwide, but could it be targeted first at areas with the most need for broadband as part of a structured plan so as not to crowd out alternative infrastructure providers. BT’s recent announcement suggests they will tackle this only if paid, but it isn’t clear who by.
- Encourage planning, S106 and the community levy to contribute to community broadband schemes – given that broadband can be an important factor in house prices, how can more prominence be given to development proposals that can make a cash contribution to a community broadband scheme that goes beyond the bounds of the proposed development. Can community led schemes (delivered by a company or intermediary) fall under permitted development for say, new antenna on a mast or a relay on a house. It seems eccentric to promote the building of fibre-capable houses when there is no fibre to run to them.
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