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2 Years On – B4RN Connect 1000+ Lancashire Homes to FTTH Broadband

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015 (2:01 am) - Score 3,963

It’s officially a shade over two years since the community built and funded B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) project first put shovels to the ground and began building their own 1000Mbps capable fibre optic broadband network to connect remote parts of rural Lancashire (England). But with over 1,000 premises now live, there’s still plenty more to come.

Ask any one of B4RN’s many volunteers whether it’s easy to do what they’re doing, with virtually zero support from the local county council, and most will probably say no. Many long, wet, windy and cold snowy days have been spent cutting trenches through fields, upturning private gardens, digging under roads and wading through some very muddy terrain.

But all that hard work isn’t without its reward and those who have helped to support the project, be it financially or through the commitment of time and energy, ultimately benefit by being able to get online via a blisteringly fast Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH/P) network. Very few people can receive something like that, even in some of the best developed parts of the UK.

b4rn speedtest

In fact the project has been so successful that they’ve managed to put the service within reach of well over 1,500 premises (it might actually be over 3,000, but it’s difficult to gauge “premises passed” with a project like B4RN), with 1,000+ now actively using the service and new homes going live at a rate of 80-90 each month.

In terms of uptake, the average sits at around 67% on the built routes and a fair few communities have effectively hit 90-100%. Most rival operators would kill for figures like that. It’s worth noting that standard customers pay just £30 per month for the ‘up to’ 1000Mbps unlimited service and there’s also a one-off connection fee of £150.

Barry Forde, B4RN’s CEO, told ISPreview.co.uk:

Interestingly we originally estimated our build cost at about £1K per property. It’s beginning to look like this is going to be closer to £750-£800, which is pretty well in line with Virgin’s £3bn to do 4 million homes in urban areas. So contrary to BT and everyone else’s assertions that rural broadband isn’t affordable, we are finding that it is and isn’t really much different to the urban rollout cost.”

Suffice to say that B4RN has come a long way since it first raised £750k between 2011 and 2012 to build the core network. According to Forde, the operator has raised £1.25 million via shares and another £1.25 million via loans (5 or 10 year) from the community and social lenders. Crucially the project is now self-sufficient and able to cover all the running costs, as well as pay 7 full time staff (currently it has 4 full time and 2 part time employees; but more could be added this summer).

At one point B4RN had hoped to secure some public funding (£875k) from the RCBF in order to help expand its network at a faster pace, although that’s never easy when your local authority isn’t especially accommodating and prefers to focus on working solely with BT (the Dolphinholme example).

Never the less B4RN is generating surplus cash and starting to put that towards paying back their loans and investments, as well as network expansion. But it’s slower going and means that they have to take an increasingly demand focused approach. Luckily there’s no shortage of interest.

Barry Forde continued:

Our challenge is managing the demand from new parishes wishing to join. Our patch has now grown to include parts of North Yorkshire as well as South Cumbria. Whenever we do a parish it always triggers interest from the next one and they form a group to pick up the challenge.

Our model is that if a parish feels they can raise the cash for the build then we will do the design and provide the support for them. There is usually a parish meeting and we present them with the material and labour costs to do the parish. They then have to commit to raising the material cash and/or digging costs depending on how they want to work it.

Some parishes are cash-rich time-poor and get people to buy enough shares to cover the costs, including paying contractors to dig it. Other parishes are cash-poor time-rich and get members of the community to agree to do all the digging and accept shares for the work done. Either way each new parish is self-funding and has to setup its own volunteer/coordinating group to do the business. That seems to work very well.

Our only problem is the central effort needed to do the designs and mentor the volunteers though the practicalities of how to dig in duct.”

As it stands B4RN anticipates being able to pay back all of their investments within 10-12 years (this is in keeping with their original plan), possibly sooner, and going forward they expect the FTTP network’s footprint to reach about 10,000 properties (based on currently active parishes). Impressive for what is fast becoming the ultimate community project.

The following vertical 3D map shows very roughly which areas B4RN are currently focused upon. The light green line represents county borders, with Cumbria to the north and Yorkshire to the right.

b4rn deployment areas

Clearly B4RN’s best strength is something that most of the bigger operators would struggle to compete with; community engagement. This acts as a powerful natural incentive for encouraging volunteers to connect with their service and few are ever disappointed.

Such community engagement has been particularly vital in helping to fight off the unwelcome advances of rival infrastructure by BT, which is more often than not being controversially supported by public funding. But B4RN’s uptake in such areas of conflict appears to be increasingly strong.

In an ideal world state aid, when managed through a common sense approach, would only be spent in areas that actually need it and not used to harm competition. On the flip side having two fibre optic infrastructure providers deploy down your street is a wonderful thing for consumers.

Barry Forde said:

The biggest problem for us has been our [Local Authority’s] total lack of willingness to support or work with us. That cost us the [Rural Community Broadband Funding] as well as previous [Rural Development Programme for England] money. They continue to be totally unhelpful and hence we just try and ignore them as far as possible.”

In practical terms B4RN’s deployment has also faced other challenges, such as the tricky work of crossing roads (directional drilling) and the nightmare of trying to move or store massive reels of fibre optic cable duct. Admittedly a 16mm duct doesn’t seem like much, but stick a kilometres worth of it on a reel and that becomes huge. Now times that by another 40 reels, plus all the other stuff required, and you suddenly need plenty of storage space.

A more common issue is the fact that not everybody can take advantage of the full 1000Mbps connection, even when the service itself is working perfectly. More often than not this can be due to home WiFi networks, the vast majority of which will struggle to push B4RN’s kind of connectivity unless you’re almost literally sitting on top of the router.

B4RN claims that some 99% of their fault reports are caused by problems like the ones above and thus a lot of effort goes into helping customers to update their kit and understand that the limit is not with their Internet connection. Even many of the latest 802.11ac equipped WiFi routers can struggle to deliver a full 1000Mbps connection, especially when moving away from the router.

However, despite all these challenges, B4RN is thriving and offers proof that a community focused model can, in the right hands, do an incredibly impressive job of delivering ultrafast broadband to some of the remotest parts of England. Long may it continue. Happy 2nd Anniversary B4RN!

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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36 Responses
  1. Martyn Dews says:

    An excellent article Mark. As you mention it has not and remains to be a difficult task to deploy but I think the community have proven many doubters wrong and there seems to be no let up in the communities that are prepared to work to get B4RN; quite the contrary in fact.

    Having been involved in this project for some time now along with many hundreds of other B4RN-stormers one can’t help feeling a sense of pride for being a small part of that success.

    There have been some great stories along the way such as people who are no able to have video calls with family on the other side of the world to to people that love to read but who’s eyesight and mobility is not what is was that are now able to download audio books whenever they want to businesses who’s WAN connection is now faster that their LAN and just very recently businesses that have moved to B4RN-land just to get the fibre connection and to allow their business to grow. All great stories that make all the effort worthwhile for the many people that have been and continue to be involved in the project.

    Look out for the book and the film. I’m sure someone must be working on it out there.

    Yes, the B4RN model does not work for all situations but this community have shown it works here and are reaping the rewards. Long may it continue.

    1. Ben Berry says:

      Really fantastic work, inspirational in fact. Well done to all involved and I look forward to it expanding!

  2. FibreFred says:

    £750-800 build costs, not including labour as with b4rn it’s volunteers ?

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Volunteers often trade their time for shares, which we’d suppose is still part of the investment because time is thus money.

    2. Walter G M Willcox says:

      B4RN’s costs are fully included whether it’s cash for materials or shares for labour. Mark’s excellent article states that shareholders will be repaid over the defined time period. Absolutely nothing is left “Under review”. EVERY property in a given community at any distance will be provided with the 1 Gbps service if they request it. B4RN can even offer a 10 Gbps service should a business require such a facility/

      It should be noted that, unlike the incumbent, the fibre network is designed with dual diverse-routed fibre feeds to every cabinet. This is financially practical as the community interest company’s constitution benefits the whole community rather than its shareholders. This in turn also offers a future possibility of fee reduction once the loans and shares are repaid. Such a decision would be implemented after a community shareholder’s vote.

    3. TheManStan says:

      True Walter, but community led and charitable organisations benefit from very selfless souls who put in vast amounts of work. Much of it above and beyond what would called a “share” and it is this what has made such a worthy venture successful, but this is what would not be found in a commercial operation so would not be factored as a build cost. FibreFred could have worded a bit more sympathetically, but that is his gist.

    4. FibreFred says:

      That was the gist yes 🙂

      Its plain to see the volunteers have put in a huge amount of effort and I’m just wondering how that is captured in £££ sense when making comparisons.

    5. MikeW says:

      It might be hard time tell whether volunteer labour is fully costed via the share allocation. Some will claim for all their time, but I bet a lot do not – especially the digs for the final drop to a batch of properties. I wonder if B4RN are monitoring all such time?

      It’d also be nice to know whether the £750-800 includes the £150 that each owner contributes to the connection. IIRC, the BSG figures include this element.

      The expense that won’t be included will be the wayleaves. I remember working out, a while back, that, if they were paid at standard CLA/NFU rates, it would add something like 30-40% directly onto everyone’s monthly cost … even before accounting for admin charges, or vat.

      BT’s choice is to route via roads and verges – higher installation cost, lower operational cost, less access hassles … but it is interesting to hear that Openreach might rethink that choice.

    6. MikeW says:

      @walter
      You’re right about the dual diverse routing. A very commendable aspect.

      However, don’t confuse the scope of a B4RN cabinet as being similar to a BT one.

      The B4RN cabinets cover a large area – more than a parish, on average – as they take advantage of the greater range of fibre vs copper. At last count, there were roughly as many B4RN cabinets covering the area as there are BT exchanges … and those too ought to have dual diverse backhaul.

      I have seen a proposal from someone in BT with the idea of a dual-parented grid for their access network, cabinets included – created by extending some of the access fibre spines that radiate from each exchange to meet at the exchange boundary. It needed around 5% extra fibre deploying, but I have no idea whether anything came of it.

  3. NGA for all says:

    Salut – there deserve huge credit. BT work in Fell End also deserves huge credit. Neither is close to the £3k-£4k per property predicted by BSG in 2009.

    And FTTC nationally will come in less than £3bn rather the £5bn predicted. More transparency and those monies will go futher.

    1. Chris Conder says:

      BSG are way off the mark, they are stakeholders, and as such have to protect the asses of other stakeholders? As do all the ‘consultants’ and survey monkeys. Who pays the piper? With fibre being as cheap as chips, and copper being so expensive and all over the place, how can they allow altnets to deploy it when it threatens their clapped out old phone network? Its the old boys network in action.

  4. David Bland says:

    A David vs Goliath story if ever I heard one! just think how far they would be if they had not faced active non-cooperation from the local authority and time wasting from central government in the form of RCBF and RDPE. Community Broadband rocks!!!

    1. NGA for all says:

      BT cannot do what Ba4rn does, but could help a few more communities rather than choosing Gorilla tactics.
      The lack of wit is stunning.
      As it stands BT will be handing back funds to counties when the three year reconciliation period arises, having contributed nothing up front – Seee clause 3.88 p44 of Oxera report, rather than using the few communities who have the wherewithal to execute such an operation and enjoy some of the credit and learning.

    2. TheFacts says:

      @NGA – Have you had independent confirmation of your interpretation of 3.88?

    3. NGA for all says:

      @The Facts 3.88 factually and practically yes. Nothing is not ‘typically three years from the date the contract was signed.’ This is something.

      It looks a breach in the state aid principles, (minimum needed -gap funding on 200 premises should be £14,000 of the £24,000, does not substitute for private investment – BT offering a match of £1bm) but that requires a bureacracy to enforce.

    4. TheFacts says:

      @NGA – bit of a problem for BDUK and the counties…

    5. NGA for all says:

      @The Facts – the state aid measure could be tightened (this July) forcing BT to make a capital contribution of say £50 a premise. It would mean BT’s needs to put £125m into pot for the 2.5m premises passed so far.
      It might a bigger problem for BT, given the information they provided and relied upon to make the deal. The Gov and Councils had no other information apart from what BT decided to provide. If this was wrong with the intention to take more monies that BT was entitled to take under state aid rules, this is open to all sorts of claims.
      Rutland, Surrey, North Yorksire must be close to 3 years, ok outside the Framework but subject to the same state aid measure.

    6. TheFacts says:

      @NGA – ‘The Gov and Councils had no other information’ What were the expensive consultants in BDUK and the counties with their industry knowledge doing?

    7. GNewton says:

      @TheFacts: “What were the expensive consultants in BDUK and the counties with their industry knowledge doing?”

      Not relevant to the B4RN, is it? Also, why do you have a tendency to never post your own thoughts and sources?

  5. X66yh says:

    Of more interest to discuss is why has B4RN not been duplicated elsewhere in the UK?

    I personally suspect that the unique circumstances of the area and the people mean it is a one off:
    1. Very poor BB speeds in a very rural area with seemingly no foreseeable options by BT/BDUK.
    2. Availability of farmers etc with the mechanical kit to do the digging and yards to store the supplies.
    3. Willingness and the time availability of locals to do the work plus the desire to pay the £30/month whatever for the service.
    4. The curious presence in the area of a number of retired people especially Barry Forde with the fibre and networking experience to run it and with the right industry contacts to be treated seriously – and for whom B4RN is probably almost like a full time job

    1. Steve Jones says:

      Everybody involves deserves the greatest praise. It shows what can be done with the right community effort. However, it really requires a lot of input, enthusiasm and sheer bloody-mindedness to do this. I suspect that the vast majority of communities will seek to get this

      To give an idea of what’s involved, BDUK is doing about 2,000 properties a week. Now try scaling up the number of community projects required to do that.

      It’s also worth reading the B4RN business plan, which is very clear that no commercial telecommunications company could do what they are doing without it costs vastly more.

    2. NGA for all says:

      Steve – BDUK BT is at 40,000 premises or 200 cabs a week, compared to a peak of 400 cabs a week in the commercial programme. 12,500 cabs done, – circa 30,000 needed + FTTP, w

      Two to three per county was possible but BT did deploy Gorilla tactics to block, see the silly buggers in Cumbria, Kent, North Somerset – all documented for future purposes, but actions will prove counter productive.

      The community based solutions and the re-establishing fibre-on-demand to help those outside the cabinet footprints need addressing.

      Alt-net capacity never above 3%/4% of the c6m premies needing doing.

      The next step is really to tackle state aid and force some meaningful contribution from BT – £50 per premise passed in the form of a reduction in LA bills. That’s a£125m for the 2.5million premises covered so far.

    3. Steve Jones says:

      Oops. I meant 2,000 a day for BDUK. Just a little factor of seven.

    4. NGA for all says:

      Steve, closer to 6 to 7k a day or 40 cabs enabled just under 1 cabinet a project. The state aid on this item alone is £500k a week.

      I would like to challenge your views BT’s commercial costs per cabinet, and your reaction to clause 3.88 in Oxera where they reveal BT make no capital contribution for three years. They also confirm at circa 12,500 cabinets (out of c30k) the cost remains under £25,000, before any contribution from BT.

    5. Portynews says:

      Even if B4RN had paid labour on top of the £750-800 per premise i highly doubt it would cost as much as BT would demand to hook up the same area, an area they deliberately avoided and deemed not commercially viable until B4RN started work to deliver a product first.

    6. TheFacts says:

      @NGA – 3.83 does not say BT make no capital contribution for 3 years. It says:

      ‘The assessment of the capital expenditure claw-back amount takes place upon completion of deployment (typically three years from the date the contract was signed);’.

      https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/378713/State_aid_-_Guidance_-_Clawback.pdf

    7. FibreFred says:

      @X66yh

      There are a few b4rn-esque ventures elsewhere https://www.b4rs.org.uk

      But you are right I think this type of thing is few and far between, a great community effort and just the right place/timing/people etc

    8. NGA for all says:

      @The Facts why would their be any assessment if BT was deducting a proportion (intervention rate) of the allowable costs.

      Elsewhere you will read Oxera consider it a success if BDUK process stops BT claiming more than a 100% of allowable costs.

    9. TheFacts says:

      @NGA – what do you understand clawback to mean?

    10. GNewton says:

      @TheFacts:

      https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=bduk+clawback

      You see it literally only takes a second to come with some info. Makes you kind of look silly here, doesn’t it?

      For a change, why don’t you come up with your own thoughts on how to accomplish something similar to what B4RN has done, in your local area? Or why don’t you organise your own local group and get a telecom provider build a fibre network?

    11. TheFacts says:

      @GN – clawback is also based on takeup. Hence the 3 year figure?

      ps- no issues with broadband here.

    12. FibreFred says:

      Gnewton why do you constantly attack yes “attack” Thefacts ?

      It’s bad enough having to tolerate the various trolls on here without having to read your constant attacks on this user

      He asked what clawback meant to nga not what it meant full stop and you launch into another round of googling and start making personal digs

      Time to revisit the posting rules ?

    1. GNewton says:

      No.

  6. DTMark says:

    There appear to be lots of straw-man arguments being put forward here.

    1. “B4RN can engage with communities” – so could BT.

    2. B4RN get free labour to dig – BT don’t need to dig. Just put the fibre on the existing poles and drag through existing ductwork.

    3. B4RN get free wayleaves – BT don’t need new wayleaves. As (2).

    1. FibreFred says:

      Re labour no not really my own point was not specific to digging just whether the costs of labour ( whatever was involved ) have been accurately captured when doing deployment cost comparisons ( doubt it has been )

      Re engagement hmm not sure Bt would / could have done the same , b4rn spent a lot of time running local meetings to gauge interest before making commitments , all of which costs money

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