Local authorities across the UK are readying themselves for the BDUK process – some are in the process of issuing tenders, others preparing their bids to BDUK for the next wave, while others are doing the hard graft of getting their local broadband plans ready for later in the year.
A common theme among many plans is to use public service networks to deliver digital village pumps – points where local access solutions can emerge, relying on a school or GP network connection as back-haul. This requires that the core network procurement needs is drawn up alongside the community strategy for delivering the access network. Without both, how can tender responses for the backbone be judged if the strategies, plans and aspirations of those expected to become stakeholders and customers haven’t been considered?
BUT not every community has the same capability; not every community has the same aspirations; and not every community has the same access to resources.
A village pump strategy needs to understand and support every type of community within a seamless and sustainable access framework. The uniqueness of each community is at the heart of the localism agenda of the government, and the local broadband access strategy is one of the first – and best – places the policy can become reality.
Trying to construct a regional model which is able to support every community in a manner which plays to their strengths and aspirations is challenging, and requires careful and creative thinking.
Some communities will be perfectly happy with a “race to infinity” where they need do little more than express a vague intention to buy something delivered to their door, and where their demands for speed can be met by a lower-cost technology like wireless or fibre to the cabinet (FttC). While this type of community is perhaps the easiest to support, it also generates the weakest investment profile and applying this lowest common denominator approach across a county would deny more energetic communities of the opportunity to express their capabilities and to demonstrate their ambition.
Some communities will want to become stakeholders, perhaps investing their own money or digging the trenches for a permanent solution to the broadband needs. Its the ambition of these groups that will drive the future innovation and economic growth in a county, so its critical that their ambitions are supported alongside less technologically needy communities.
However, based on my email box, phone calls and conversations I sense that communities are becoming confused as often there seems to be less clarity surrounding the community access strategies than their is about the development of a joined-up local PSN. The access network is the most expensive and challenging part, and reflecting differing community needs and capabilities is hard but it is necessary for a successful local broadband plan.
In an earlier article I commented on the apparent lack of the Big Society manifesting itself in some local authority strategies. Developing a county-wide access framework which encompasses a range of solutions that can engage communities of all needs and aspirations fixes that. It certainly isn’t easy, and it will require creative and new thinking, but there is help available.
There are people who can help develop a community engagement programme that goes beyond a demand registration site; others who can build an investment case that leverages both city and community funds; and other still that can help shape the technical choices and delivery models that leave the community as stakeholders in a solution that fits their purpose, from within a coherent framework which can be delivered across the county.
In the coming weeks there will announcements regarding practical help and support for local authorities, communities, and network operators developing inclusive access strategies but If you’re in the middle of this work now contact me and I’ll put you touch.