What follows is the transcript of a speech I gave to INCA’s workshop held on the 19th July at the Frontline Club. This was a difficult speech to give, but one I felt I had to give.

The speech was given as part of the events opening “provocations” to seed debate, so it was just 5 minutes long. To help clarify some points, I’ve added footnotes to the text – hover over the numbers to see some of my clarifications.

It saddens me – that I feel it necessary to say what I’m about to say but it does come from the heart.

There is no such thing as “community broadband” – its dead, gone.

Or rather “community broadband” as its often described – a neatly delineated, easily identifiable scheme run by ardent enthusiasts on the fringes – is dead.

This is an image that perhaps fitted the initial wave of broadband schemes a decade ago, when the policy was to fund regional procurement programmes and target wireless and satellite solutions at the rural fringes.

That ended in 2005 when Tony Blair stood up at his party conference and announced that broadband was done – or at least I thought it ended then

To celebrate 10 years of unevolving community broadband, it appears we are to do the exact same thing again, if the the models appearing from BDUK are to be believed{{1}} – either a very brave move based on something none of us have spotted or one detached from any sense of ambition or reality.

In the beginning communities clambered across church roofs, installed wireless aerials, and were the pioneers of broadband in rural areas – over 200 at the peak.

Today, communities recognise they still live in broadband unfriendly areas, but they also recognise that the technology is more complex this time and the business case much longer and more difficult to make.

That doesn’t mean, though, that they can simply be patted on the head and told not to worry. Many, many communities – wise from their experience – know they need to be involved if they are to have an infrastructure which meets their ambitions.

Right now, very few know what form that role will take – demand stimulation, contracting to pre-orders, helping with way-leaves, investing their own money, and, yes, possibly digging their own trenches – but they know they must be stakeholders, sat around the table as equals.

Those from the industry that have overcome what might be called the Rumsfeld “unknown-unknowns”{{2}} and have started to do the really hard thinking – and I include Fujitsu, Geo and BT as much the likes of Rutland – have realised that the traditional resource constrained, lean and efficient relationship with customers can’t support the business case – the take-up and cost-savings necessary to deliver long-term solutions in any geography.

A much more collaborative relationship is needed, working with communities as partners, developing what Kees Rovers calls the “us feeling”{{3}} – but this is a very hard thing for a traditional telecoms company to do – its not obvious how you can make it scale, for example – but they know that to be a successful player they need to find answers.

Which is why you find senior executives from major corporations turning up to village halls – this has created a growing, common vocabulary and a space in which a dialogue between stakeholders can occur and a balance sought.

Local authorities also often turn up to these meetings – they have the equally hard goals of reducing costs, transforming the way they deliver services, while ensuring they have a competitive local economy

But I’d have to say that, in my experience, few councils have moved much beyond a strategy which involves “shovelling the money towards an industrial giant in the hope it just makes the bad problems go away”.

I don’t blame them – this is very hard, far from their core competence, and the advice they often receive is contradictory, rapidly changing and detached.

However, where the shift has happened its been quite brilliant to watch – my own county, Oxfordshire, has gone through a lot of real pain to move from an overly simplistic model towards one which understands localism, understands the nature of the problem, and is beginning to understand the nature of the solution.

It certainly wasn’t easy for them – and they deserved to feel proud of the progress they made – at least until BDUK decided to become misty-eyed for the past and shifted their policy from localism to the centralism of the last government.{{4}}

As a result we now have a situation where the industry is increasingly able to sit around the table with communities, work with them towards the holy grail of long term solutions which scale and meet both sides ambitions and capabilities.

While, it seems, at a completely different table sits the voice of BDUK, advising councils, and closing out many of those who may know a thing or two about this space.{{5}}

The reason this comes from the heart ought to be clear to most of you. Like many in this room, I’ve spent a very long time trying to figure out how to deliver sustainable and universal broadband. There are very, very good people in BDUK who have been part of this process – and from the outset those people sat around the same table as the rest of us, seeking the same solutions, and for that they garnered a lot of respect and goodwill from just about everyone.

In the last few months, however, much of that goodwill has evaporated. I’m yet to find a single person active in this space – industry or community – that thinks the framework is a good idea – I have found one or two in the public sector but even there, support is far from universal.

So, to the leadership of BDUK I say this – stop listening to price tag of the advice, and start listening to the experience within your organisation. Only then can you properly guide local councils – and recover your relationship with the parts of the the industry that matter and with communities.{{6}}

And more widely in the public sector I say this – Community Broadband, as you know it, is dead!

Lets start afresh and recognise that all forms of future broadband are in a sense Community Broadband – long live community broadband! Thank you{{7}}

[[1]]All BDUK models and the advice they seem to give to local authorities talks of FttC to much of the country, typically based on BT products and services, with wireless and satellite services for the rest. Don’t assume this means BT are in some way complicit – I suspect they are as frustrated as everyone else[[1]]

[[2]]As anyone who has been involved in building a next generation access network will attest, the process is a complex journey which only begins after the first step. Operators whose experience is limited to core networks or first generation broadband are yet to understand this complexity. Experienced major operators have found this as much as smaller, newer organisations – those that understand the complexities of NGA are a clear subset of the industry.[[2]]

[[3]]Kees Rovers is the man behind the OnsNet network in The Netherlands. His approach is defined by 7-pillars, necessary principles for a successful broadband project. The “Us feeling” is a sense the community is in some way a stakeholder, engaged in its delivery.[[3]]

[[4]]BDUK’s expectation that local authorities should use their central framework to find a single partner to deliver their local broadband plan has in many cases stopped the very difficult but necessary thinking being done by many local authorities, and pandered to those that wanted any easy process.[[4]]

[[5]]The BDUK framework excludes almost every organisation with experience of building next generation networks, in some cases by what appears to be carefully crafted rules targeting specific organisations. There is also frustration being expressed by a growing number of people who feel excluded from dialogue with BDUK – meetings cancelled, concerns ignored, and a sense the dialogue has simply ended.[[5]]

[[6]]I don’t know what changed inside BDUK but its clear something changed. From the outset there was a very fluid and constructive dialogue between most people involved in this space – at one time I might meet people within BDUK almost weekly. That phase has very clearly gone now. Personally I’ve not had a dialogue with BDUK of any merit in some months, and much of the advice I and many others have offered in the past has clearly been set aside.[[6]]

[[7]]I’d like to think that its not too late for BDUK to repair their relationship with the industry and communities but time is certainly running out. A year has gone by, and the framework will absorb much of the next one. Communities and the industry want to make progress more quickly, with greater ambition, and with more consensus – BDUK should be part of that process, and not  allow themselves to become a competing factor as we move forward.

This remains a very challenging goal but the policy can’t be a success if the majority of stakeholders are at odds with the policy delivery team. The original goals need to be restored; this process which will surely only deliver an efficient way to spend money needs to encompass the goal of becoming a broadband superpower again – and that will need everyone. [[7]]

  1. James Saunby says:

    BDUK has the power (money) to actually make community networks work. The key (I believe) is interconnection with the main wholesale networks to give access to ISPs. Communities are keen to build their own networks where the market wont deliver, but want access to normal broadband services and prices once done.

    State aid requires interconnection of networks, so BDUK can require companies receiving funding to open their networks to allow onward access by community networks.

    As you say, BDUK needs to talk to the people involved at the community level and use their power to deliver what is needed in a commercially sustainable way.

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