The Chancellor’s Announcement About Rural Broadband – Eventually You Get Proved Right

Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a further funding programme for rural broadband. This is designed to take faster internet connections deeper into the “difficult to reach” parts of the countryside.

There are two notable things about the proposed strategy here. The first is that it is based on what is called “full-fibre”. That means fibre optic cable right into the premises, not, as has mainly been the case to date, running fibre to street cabinets and then relying on the ancient copper cables to take the signal the rest of the way. This can be for miles in some rural areas, and the signal degrades over copper, whereas it doesn’t over fibre. Some of us have been calling for a “full-fibre” strategy for years, and, at last the Government has caught up with this, but only after wasting millions of pounds on propping up the antiquated copper telephone network.

The second notable element is that the new strategy is based around connecting up public sector buildings, especially schools, to the fibre network, and then connecting up the remainder of the community from there.

In 2011, redoubtable broadband activist Lindsey Annison had a plan identical to this to connect up the community of Warcop in Cumbria. Below are some videos I took on the Fibre Walk she led over the proposed cable-laying route. This plan could not be implemented because we were told that it was not feasible for schools to share the connections with non-educational sites. That policy has now been over-turned, but only 7 years later. How much time and money has been expended in pursuing temporary solutions till now?

It is good to be proved right, but why does it have to take so long?

An Inspirational Two Days in Eden

Rory's Reivers 1

I’ve just spent an inspirational two days in the District of Eden in Cumbria, most of it in the beautiful village of Great Asby. I was there for two days of events, the first was the Big Society Information Exchange, which I have already blogged about here, day two was largely about the Cumbria Broadband Champions event. I’ve posted the videos from this event below.

I have to say that I came away from Great Asby feeling elated, energised and optimistic. As I said in the previous post, I retain doubts about the ability of the Big Society agenda to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged in society, but, I am an optimist at heart, and determined to do what I can to join in the effort to empower everyone in every community to achieve what is important to them. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen how it can be done in Eden. Yes, it is a Big Society Vanguard area, and, no, not every area is going to get the support that Eden is getting. And, not every area has an MP like Rory Stewart who is galvanising everybody, at all levels from the senior civil service to the smallest community group, to pull together around the Big Society banner. Every community is different, but I think that already a lot has been achieved in Eden and lessons are emerging. It was really encouraging (if not a little unnerving) to see the numbers of people who turned out on both days to cram into a tiny village hall and talk about their passions. We need to capture this spirit and spread it around, and we probably need to clone Rory Stewart, and the likes of Libby Bateman, who is an amazing dynamo, making things happen on the ground.

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Day two was not exclusively about Eden, as Rural Broadband Champions came from throughout Cumbria to talk about their priorities for the Cumbrian Rural Broadband pilot, which looks like it will bring about £10 to £15 million of Government money to help solve connectivity problems in the county’s rural communities. We heard from Barry Forde, the designer of the CLEO (Cumbria & Lancashire Education Online) network, about how there can be fibre cables in surprising places that might make it easier to connect rural locations than we might imagine, and we heard from Miles Mandleson and John Bevan about the Great Asby Broadband network, which is solving the connectivity issue in the host village, and working towards its objective to provide fibre to the home (FTTH) for all its residents.

At the end of the day, community representatives presented the results of their discussions about broadband needs in their area. These were powerful testimonies about their struggles to get the connectivity that many of us take for granted, and their determination to ensure the pilot is used as an opportunity to make a step change towards “future-proof” connections, not short term fixes that will be obsolete in a few years time.  Rural communities need the sort of services (eg. Telehealth and Telecare) that next generation broadband can bring even more than their urban counterparts, and there is a strong feeling that the time is overdue to start delivering them.

I think the rural broadband pilots could be a real test for the Big Society. It is evident from Cumbria that there are community groups out there ready and willing to deliver community-based solutions to their local connectivity needs. As we heard, Great Asby Broadband is already doing it, but, there are also many other vested interests in the broadband world, including some very big corporations who might fight to secure Government subsidies for their own plans, which may or may nor fit in with community aspirations. If Big Society is about breaking through public bureaucracy in the interests of getting things done in the community, then, surely this must apply also to private vested interests where they stand in the way of local communities getting what is right for them.

The Cumbrian Rural Broadband Champions have spoken. Lets hope someone is listening.

Videos from the day

Rory Stewart MP introduces the day, and interviews Barry Forde

More from Barry Forde

Miles Mandelson, Great Asby Broadband

John Bevan, Great Asby Broadband

Miles Mandelson, Great Asby Broadband (again)

Mike Kiely & Robert Ling of Broadband Delivery UK

Simon Jones, Cisco

Nicky Getgood, Talk About Local

Questions and Answers

Feedback from Communities

Rory Stewart MP sums up


Eden Big Society Information Exchange

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Yesterday, I was privileged to be part of the first Eden Big Society Information Exchange. During the day, probably around 200 people gathered in the small village hall in the Cumbrian village of Great Asby. It was really interesting to see the Big Society in action, as the dynamic and charismatic local MP, Rory Stewart, galvanised the senior civil servants and agency managers, who he had persuaded to leave their coseted Whitehall worlds, into earnest discussion about how Government might help communities to achieve their ambitions.

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It was a really interesting process, a bit chaotic at times, owing to the large numbers of people in a small hall, but, ultimately quite inspiring. It remains a concern of mine as to whether Big Society can be done this way everywhere. Eden is a Vanguard Area, and Rory Stewart is very persuasive, I can’t see teams of high flying civil servants descending on every community in the country, and I also wonder what would happen if you try this in some of the more disadvantaged and / or socially and ethnically diverse areas. But, it seems to me that Eden is making real progress in working out how Big Society might be implemented.

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You can see more of the photos I took at the event here.

The day started with Rory Stewart MP introducing the objectives, and then handing over to a number of senior civil servants and national agency representatives who were there to see how the might help local people to achieve their Big Society objectives. Here is the video of that session.

Here is the video of the afternoon panel session:

And some scenes from the round table discussions

Some archived live video

http://qik.com/video/17700644

http://qik.com/video/17703083

Twitter Gritter

The weather is getting colder, and, even though it’s still October, there have already been some #uksnow tweets on Twitter.

Sandwell Council Gritter in Birmingham in mid-summer

When I was in the Big Society Vanguard area of Eden Valley, recently, we were talking about the real difficulties which heavy snow causes in that area, which is in England’s most sparsely populated constituency. Last winter, people were snowed in for days, cut off from services and shops, and no one was able to get through to them. And people experienced real difficulties getting information about which roads were clear, which had been gritted, and when. This caused further difficulties in that people sometimes set off on journeys and then came to a section of road that wasn’t gritted and got stuck.

During this conversation, I mentioned the “Twitter Gritter” initiative, started by the wonderful Dan Slee at Walsall Council. Last winter Dan was giving real-time information on Twitter as gritters went out about which routes were being cleared. So, I made a mental note to speak to Dan about how he does this, what technology is involved, and how it might be replicated elsewhere.

So, yesterday, on arriving at the Beyond 2010 conference in Birmingham, I spied Dan across the room, and resolved to quiz him about just how he does it. And this produced a pretty amazing revelation. Dan told me that there is no expensive technology involved. The gritter driver simply texts or emails him as they are about to set out on a route and he puts the information out on Twitter.

This is one of those examples where really simple ideas don’t get spread, when the solution is so straightforward and effective. I had assumed that more people weren’t doing it because it involved some kind of expensive solution, linking GPS devices on gritting lorries with a control centre and online mapping. But, no, some of the best ideas are the most simple ones. And this is yet another example of the ability of the internet and social media to take offline information and amplify it.

This could be another classic Big Society initiative. Dan is employed by Walsall Council, but, it seems to me that there is no reason why local volunteer co-ordinators couldn’t be appointed to receive texts or emails from gritter drivers and output the information to Twitter, Facebook, hyeprlocal websites, and text messaging networks.

We can do this, can’t we?

Community Noticeboards and the Big Society

Following on from my previous post on the potential for photographing Community Noticeboards to develop an online database of local “analogue” community activities, this is a different take on the Community Noticeboard.

As I mentioned in the post about my visit to Eden a couple of weeks ago, I have been thinking about the issue of how to communicate information quickly and cheaply to people in a dispersed area like Eden, many of whom do not have access to Broadband. One of the examples we talked about was the Electronic Noticeboard developed by Lancaster University for the village of Wray in Lancashire. This allows people to enter information online, and it appears on a touchscreen in the village shop.  I think this is a fantastic idea, but, it could be a bit expensive to replicate in lots of different communities, especially in these days of financial austerity.

So, could we not develop something which does this job as, effectively, a website, which could then be displayed on a computer display in a shop window? It would need to show notices which would probably rotate on a regular basis, could accept user-generated content, and could be moderated to filter out inappropriate content.