Blowing towards Thrushgill – East of Lancaster

27 Sep

[‘From our own correspondent’ – visiting rural Lancashire to get a feel for great digital design]

Place your finger on the map at Lancaster and then move it across to the East until you find a large dark patch. This remote and roughly triangular terrain, in and around the Forest of Bowland, is not some black hole where civilisation vanishes but a place where businesses blossom and communities thrive.

brn-vanThese remote 53 parishes contradict the supposedly inevitable economic migration towards ever-more-complex city conurbations. In this rural patch you can find a world-leading example of sustainable digital infrastructure – largely because, in the rough-hewn ways across Lancashire/Yorkshire borderlands, the locals would have no truck with BT’s ‘phone-line broadband’.

If you live, learn and work in a remote area you soon learn a thing or three about resilience. Here you value the interdependencies on which communities build sustainability. For technologists and economists (and most politicians) there are huge design lessons here.   One might imagine (given the popular substitutes for five minutes thought) that densely populated cities would most readily justify the investment in future-proofed fibre. It might be assumed that remote areas would be the least likely candidates for great infrastructure investment.

In the UK (and particularly East of Lancaster) almost the exact opposite prevails. Larger places may be woefully underserved by dependence on a supposedly cheap short-term fix but, in this scattering of villages and hamlets, that same dismal design would deliver an even worse performance.   Not for them the inadequacies of variable and unreliable phone-line broadband. Digital technologies are a great enabler of economic well-being – but only if they work in all weathers all of the time.

That is why the B4RN fully future-proofed design is not just a great example for those who live learn and work away from large towns or cities. It also tells urban city dwellers that they too could aspire to something vastly better, more affordable and more energy-efficient.   Local governments are slowly beginning to realise that, whereas BT saw their copper network as a great asset, it is the holes and poles that are of greatest value in this digital era. It is unfortunate that most of those holes and poles are cluttered with copper cables but Local Authorities who have the good fortune (Like Bristol) to own alternative ducts are enabled to speed ahead.

This, of course, is not a problem East of Lancaster. There are precious few ducts and many of the poles are rotting relics of a bygone era. So the locals ignore any old holes and poles and, with a great deal of local community cooperation, dig their own ducts into their own fields and blow their own fibres through them.

  • Fifty Three parishes served by 25 nodes,
  • More than 2200 fully-fibred connections
  • Serving 65% of all properties,
  • A small army of local folk who have learned that this digital stuff is not rocket science
  • And what they get is 1000Mb/s in both directions.
  • For £30 month (inc. VAT)

But no one should pretend that this community-led effort is easy.   It requires massive motivation and collaboration (particularly from landowners) and astute management of the entire cooperative scheme. Some would say that the broadband service itself is only a small part of the benefit: making it happen demands that communities come together and develop greater cohesion. At the outset in 2011 it seemed like a pipe dream and potential funding was unlikely. Five years on B4RN has shown that it makes perfect sense and, as the Chinese proverb says, ‘Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it’.

Local Authorities everywhere are thinking (perhaps for the first time) that the holes and poles should be far better maintained and unclogged to make way for the future. Down in Westminster, BEIS and the IPA (HMT/Cabinet Office) understand the need for business investor confidence, particularly during the UK’s structural separation from the EU. The most immediate trigger for inward multi-sector investment to the UK would be to signal support for well-designed, resilient and sustainable pure fibre networks and replacement of legacy copper.

B4RN, East of Lancaster around the Forest of Bowland, may, on a draughty day, seem a very long way from Westminster but strategic connectivity lessons travel at the speed of light – in both directions.


B4RN – ‘Blowing toward Thrushgill’ by B4RN shareholder Walter Willcox.

The B4RN ‘Show-Tell’ day was sponsored by the network’s ‘blown fibre’ specialists – Emtelle



3 Responses to “Blowing towards Thrushgill – East of Lancaster”

  1. Walter G M Willcox September 27, 2016 at 10:15 pm #

    Groupe Intellex’s correspondent quite rightly mentions resilience. That is provided by a dual diverse-routed network keeping the cabinets working even when one feeder cable has been damaged. The next part of that design will be completed shortly when a second internet connection becomes live in Edinburgh.

    B4RN’s Point-to-Point true fibre network design has already demonstrated significant expansion from the original 8 Parishes now up to 53 which overlaps at least 25 exchanges (but avoids major conurbations) and that is nowhere near its maximum.

    It is perhaps ironic that the Incumbent’s tiny amount of monopolistic exchange-based asymmetric single-feed fibre cannot compete with B4RN and makes no attempt to reduce field equipment nor staffing levels. In fact the reliability of the worn-out copper, still vital for most broadband services, increases the maintenance workload as demonstrated by the rising number of “Matters beyond our reasonable control” as well as extended repair times now out to 5 days together with the temporary halting of further new installations.

  2. chrisconder September 28, 2016 at 8:19 pm #

    How refreshing to read about B4RN from someone who actually took the trouble to visit and find out all about it! One slight nitpicking comment – I don’t actually think that the ‘locals would have no truck with BT broadband’ it was more a case of BT couldn’t get the broadband to them at all…
    …most of the early customers were on dial up or satellite, and some couldn’t even get that. B4RN was born from desperation. The communities have really been brilliant, and we’re all very proud of our network of internet connectivity – and of people. Linked by a common goal.
    Thank you David.

    • GroupeIntellex October 2, 2016 at 3:46 pm #

      Chris – you make a very good point and I’m well aware of the processes that burden BT on its chosen path.
      The fact remains, however, that this is a design issue – one that political and regulatory leaderships were not able to address.
      We cannot turn the clock back but pretending, at the outset, that fibre was unaffordable is increasingly exposed as short-sighted, politically convenient and lacking regulatory rigour.
      The lessons should not be lost on City as well as Rural economic developers – for there are horrible holes throughout the land that will not be filled until wiser heads prevail.
      Sadly the recent VOA decision on rateable values provides another example of failure to read the digital directions.
      My note in the FISP Observatory refers:

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