I’ve written before about the role of the public sector in supporting broadband programmes, but as the remaining underserved areas get more fragmented and difficult to solve the role of your community becomes more critical. There is often an assumption that this means communities have to roll-up their sleeves and start digging fibre for themselves but community-led broadband is more more diverse than that.
Its certainly true that the more digitally isolated a community is, the greater the engagement you may need to have with the solution, and at
the extremes there may be few options but for your community to build their own solution, but for most communities a range of options exist.
There is a tradeoff to be found which balances your community capability and their ability to invest in the project. Investment in this case is not narrowly defined simply as cash but may include sweat equity and any other kind of value that can be brought to a community-led project.
These models fall into two broad camps:
- The first is essentially a helping hand to a third-party who will design, build, operate and own the infrastructure for you.
- The second model transfers increasing responsibility onto your community and will require some kind of community enterprise.
The simplest form is Demand Aggregation where the community collects registered demand. In the remaining underserved areas this will typically need to be more than a simple petition – a company considering investing in your area will almost certainly want to see firm demand that will convert into paying customers and not just a vague indication of the possibility of customers.
This model works well for marginal areas but it may not be sufficient to attract an operator to invest in your area if you are truly hard to reach.
Building on this, a community could consider offering sweat equity to an operator – what BDUK called “Build and Benefit”. For example, local farmers might consider digging the trenches that an operator could adopt and lay fibre into. In essence your community help to build the network and are happy to accept your return in the form of improved broadband services.
The key benefit to a community of this model is that it helps to build the business case for hard to reach areas while not asking the community to take on a long term responsibility for the solution.
Whatever the model, do some research and cast your net wide when looking for a helping hand – different technologies and business models amongst operators mean they can help in different ways.
If offering an operator a helping hand is not enough to attract broadband investment then your community could consider forming your own community-led broadband scheme through a community enterprise of some kind. Even at this stage it may not be necessary for the community to do all of the heavy lifting with at least three distinct approaches, each with a gradually increasing commitment from your community.
The first is a Partnership with an operator where the community offer to provide a proportion of the investment, again not necessarily narrowly defined, and an operator agrees to make the remaining investment with the venture jointly owned by both parties. This means the community will have some long term responsibility for the project but a carefully negotiated partnership should mean that the community share is not more than you can reasonably support – sales and marketing and perhaps some first level support are not untypical for example.
If a partnership is not enough to attract an operator then the community may have to consider a form of Concession where a specialist company is asked to design, build and operate the network for a period of time, but the community becomes responsible for finding all of the investment and will own the network in perpetuity.
This approach can have significant benefits for the community, including control of the costs and the shape of your services, while not expecting the community to become skilled technical network operators. The down-side is that the community will become responsible for finding all of the investment, and this will become increasingly narrowly defined as cash.
Only when your community has explored all of these options is it necessary to consider a self-built “DIY” network, where all or nearly all of the project is designed, built, operated and owned by your community. As the project is being delivered by you, you have more flexibility to define the kinds of investment you will accept – some cash will be necessary but around 70% plus of the costs are likely to be labour and you can opt to reflect that how you wish.
This gives your community total control over your digital future but it may come with significant responsibilities as well.
Succession planning is critical. While you may have a group of experts in your community today, what happens if they move?
And at some point in the future there will almost certainly be a copper switch-off where BT’s telephone network is retired. When that happens it’s likely that whatever fibre network remains will become the incumbent operator for your area. On the one hand it means you may have a natural monopoly but that comes with responsibilities like handling emergency 999 calls. These things need to be considered and planned but should not necessarily deter you.
The key thing with any of the Community Enterprise models is an honest skills gap analysis – what can you sensibly do within your community today and into the future, what skills do you need to find, and are they likely to be community or external resources?
You’re not alone
Community-led broadband is a spectrum of models with one to suit almost any community, and it doesn’t necessarily mean doing the heavy lifting yourselves. Also you don’t have to feel like a pioneer anymore – there are successful examples of many of these models in the UK and across Europe.
With more years than I care to remember finding broadband models for hard to reach areas, please get in touch if you need some advice.