Over the past six months or so I’ve been sitting on Oxfordshire’s Broadband Working Group considering how we might make the best of our broadband landscape. Oxfordshire is the most rural county in the South East, making it challenging for broadband, yet it also generates many more high-technology start-ups than most – not an easy balance to achieve, especially when you realise that, unlike Cambridge with its science parks, many of these small business that will lead the UK out of our economic woes are as likely to appear in converted barns in Cotswold villages as they are in the dreaming spires.
The process, similar to many up and down the country, has taken the County Council into new territory and has required much scratching of heads, but it now feels like the group is close to a strategy which is ambitious both for the public sector and our economy, making the most of the county’s resources; not the least of which is smart people. Hopefully the draft strategy will soon be published and you can judge for yourself but at the moment I’d have to say that if the council leadership approve the last draft I saw then they will be one of the council’s to watch.
While this was going on at a county level, communities were beginning to come together to work out what they wanted to do – when broadband was being deployed the first time around the county spawned more than its fair share of broadband programmes and community networks. Blewbury, a village with long standing broadband problems, was one of the first to put its head above the parapet this time, winning the “Race to Infinity “, shortly followed by Chipping Norton and its hinterland.
At Oxfordshire’s recent Digital Summit, the County Council’s Deputy Leader David Robertson gave his support to projects that build on the government’s ‘Big Society’ ideals, and the Chipping Norton ambition certainly embodies that. “Chippy” has looked at its options and decided, for economic and social reasons, that while FttC may fix the town’s problems for the time being, it won’t help many of the villages that rely on the town, and that ploughing ahead on its own would make a marginal business case for investing in the surrounding area impossible.
Take the small village of Chadlington in the Wychwood Forest and just outside Chippy – it has its own small telephone exchange but all the homes and businesses (including the Prime Minister’s) are connected straight to the exchange – there are no cabinets in Chadlington so FttC is not really an option. And rather than condemn villages like Chadlington to a broadband wilderness, the group is looking to install fibre optic network all the way to every home and business across the entire hinterland.
The group are also being both innovative and realistic when it comes to investment. This is a major project in a hard to reach area, and any funding from BDUK is like to amount to no more than perhaps 5% of the sum needed. They recognise that a venture such as this needs all the stakeholders to help in anyway they can, not just the telecoms industry and the public sector, but also local people and businesses. So the group is looking at how their plans for a wholesale open access network can be owned and financed in part by the local community.
The group has already attracted financial support from the INCA’s Big Society Broadband Fund to carry out the initial feasibility study – some of their findings will soon appear in the Knowledgebase. They are now looking to gain wider public support and, in partnership with the City, raise community investment for the project.
Led by an old friend of mine who lives in the town, Neil Homer is a social entrepreneur with an urban and rural planning strategy background, the contributors to the project draw on the wide range of sage expertise you find in villages in this part of the world, including my old colleagues from Oxfordshire Rural Broadband who delivered the first generation of broadband to west Oxfordshire (the group Ed Vaizey cut his broadband teeth on when he was an MP-in-waiting).
This is the big society writ large, and very different from the pioneering projects in Alston and Wray – this isn’t a community that would find it easy to dig trenches but they bring a whole lot of other things to the party which make next generation broadband possible.
With a County Council preparing what I hope will be an ambitious strategy for the county and the likes of Chipping Norton taking a lead, it feels like Oxfordshire may be something of a waking broadband giant. Fingers crossed!
Transition Chipping Norton is hosting a public meeting on 6th July at 7:30 in the Town Hall to explain to the communities in and around the town just how they can benefit and how they can get involved.