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B4RN Bring 1Gbps Broadband to 1,600 Rural Homes in North England

Monday, February 15th, 2016 (1:02 am) - Score 1,511
b4rn_fibre_optic_cable_stretched_over_wall

It’s fast approaching three years since the community built and funded B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) project first picked up shovels and began building their own ultrafast 1000Mbps Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to parts of rural Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire.

Nothing about what B4RN does is easy, whether that’s having to dig through a muddy field in the middle of a rain storm or trying to figure out inventive ways of crossing rivers and roads. Never the less their efforts, fuelled by frustration at BT’s neglect of so many rural areas, has driven them forward and helped to garner support from an increasing number of isolated communities.

Almost one year ago B4RN celebrated the connection of its 1,000th customer and today they have well over 1,600 premises connected (adding about 100 per month, limited by manpower not demand). In fact they’re adding at such a rapid pace that they’ll soon need to buy in some extra IPv4 address space (even with IPv6 around you still need IPv4 for full Internet access).

So far B4RN claims to have 800km of core network installed and the take-up in related communities tends to average around 65%, which is extremely impressive. On the financial front the company is almost entirely community funded, with 778 shareholders holding a total of £1.5 million (shares) and another £1 million loaned to the company from the community.

All of this is supported by 8 full time and 2 part time employees, with B4RN aiming to take on another 4 shortly in order to further boost their workforce and support. Mind you this overlooks the countless volunteers who often turn up, committing their spare time in exchange for shares, in order to help dig, splice and generally expand the reach of pure fibre optic connectivity.

b4rn_fibre_optic_digger_in_action

At this point it’s worth noting that standard customers pay just £30 per month for a 1000Mbps (symmetrical) unlimited service and there’s also a one-off connection fee of £150, which is incredibly cheap when you consider that it’s FTTH and there’s no separate line rental cost to pay on top. None of this would be possible without all those excellent volunteers.

Planning for the Future

As it stands B4RN has completed nearly all of their originally planned network and they’re self-sufficient (able to cover all their running costs), but they’re not stopping any-time soon either and the project’s website gives a clear hint of their plans for future coverage.

Communities Installing B4RN

  • Yealand Redmayne, Silverdale, Storth (website)
  • Clapham, Keasden, Newby (website)
  • Burrow, Cowan Bridge, Leck, Ireby, Masongill
  • Hutton Roof (website)
  • Hornby, Farleton, Claughton, Caton
  • Brookhouse
  • Inglewhite (website)

Communities Route-planning B4RN

  • Austwick, Lawkland, Eldroth (website)
  • Preston Patrick, Old Hutton & Homescales, New Hutton (website)
  • High Biggins, Kearstwick, Old Town
  • Ingleton, Westhouse (website)
  • Beacon Fell, Bleasdale, Chipping, Goosnargh, Whitechapel (website)

Many of the communities listed above are working to find their own funding and investment, with B4RN then coming in to do all the heavy lifting alongside local volunteers using the same self-built model as adopted so successfully elsewhere. Similar B4RN inspired projects are also occurring in other locations around England (e.g. F4RN for Fiskerton-cum-Morton residents in Nottinghamshire).

Mind you it’s not always easy and there’s the ever present threat of BT coming in at the last minute to overbuild their network (example), although B4RN’s strong community engagement is usually enough to turn such encroachment into a wasted effort. Not that residents mind, after all having two networks competing delivers greater consumer choice.

b4rn_speed_improvement_2016
(Guess the “before B4RN” and “after B4RN” speed)

In other situations B4RN has been asked to help when another project has failed, such as in the very recent case of Cumbria’s failed Fibre GarDen scheme (here). Happily B4RN now looks set to provide their own solution for local residents.

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

“We received a large number of approaches from residents of Dentdale and Garsdale who, despite the issues with the FibreGarden project, were still keen to get FTTH deployed and for B4RN to move into their patch. After a number of meetings with volunteers and activists we decided that there was sufficient interest and potential funding to warrant going ahead.

So we are currently doing the detailed planning and expect to have this finished before the end of the month and begin digging as soon as the ground is dry enough to take machinery, hopefully early March. … With a following wind we could complete both dales by the end of the year.”

At present the project team sees no specific geographical limit to its expansion potential and as long as communities are asking for help then they’ll do their best to support them.

Going forward the team are also considering the big step of setting up their own civil engineering team, which they view as preferable to hiring sub-contractors for the parts of work that require more than a few volunteers and some spades.

Barry Forde said:

“We have found working with sub-contractors a painful experience. If you want a job done to a high specification on time to our standards it’s impossible to find companies able/willing to do it. So we are taking on three staff and all the equipment needed to do the work inhouse. We are also putting some of our existing staff through the Street Works Supervisor certification process so they can add to the civils team and also do some volunteer training and supervision.”

At the same time B4RN have also run into problems with road crossings, albeit more on the administrative side with the need for lots of section 50 licences. The operator is however hoping to make life easier by securing Code Powers from Ofcom, although the process has been rather slow.

The hope is that a formal Code Powers consultation could start by the end of this month or next. Related applications are rarely opposed and usually end up being enacted quite soon after the consultation.

Finally, B4RN are looking at a second resilient route, which could involve a fibre pair to Edinburgh that would peer at IX-Scotland (Scotland’s local Internet Exchange) or they could go in the opposite direction to Manchester (the decision will be mostly a matter of price and network practicality). Separate to this we should add that every one of B4RN’s nodes (service cabinet) will have two routes connecting it, so there is a backup connection in case of damage to one of the routes.

In the meantime it’s back to digging up muddy fields and handling long strands of brightly coloured fibre optic cable, which in the eyes of many remote rural communities is fast becoming a potent symbol of real progress and proper future-proofing.

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Mark Jackson
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.
Leave a Comment
18 Responses
  1. Avatar simon bull

    We live rural east northamptonshire pe8 lutton, and we’ve just given up on bt and the council now totally..
    We are being told theres no money left now!! Yet the country council just built a new 2.3 million pound office.!!! can see where the rural broadband money went..
    So now we have found a small company that is supplying super fast broadband through the digital air waves and currently receiving 40 meg down and 35 meg up.
    So bt can go away now. and its cheaper than bt fiber prices and unlimited prices…

  2. Avatar JamesM

    You get a good deal then especially on the upload. Puts BT to shame does all this :/

    • Avatar TheFacts

      And VM and Sky and TalkTalk…

    • Avatar GNewton

      @TheFacts: Trying to twist the facts here again? Sky and TalkTalk use BT’s access networks, hence their speeds (upload or download) are no different from that of BT. And Virgin Media doesn’t operate in rural areas. So your comment is irrelevant here.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      No its not irrelevant

      Just because you don’t like the reality it doesn’t make it irrelevant

    • Avatar FibreFred

      And well done b4rn a positive story shame the comments drop into trolling almost immediately

    • I took what TheFacts said to mean that VM, Sky and TalkTalk’s speeds were also slower than B4RN, which is correct. The fact that two of them use BT infrastructure is part of that, but hardly twisting? Nobody was doing a deeper analysis above.. you may have extrapolated too much.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      Now they are self sufficient things could get interesting, expanding their team to take on other areas and rollout quicker.

    • Avatar Ignition

      It is great to see these guys doing so well. Rather than waiting for BT, complaining all the way, they have been able to do it themselves.

      More power to them and every success in the future. More of this is needed to provide a rich, broad landscape of providers.

  3. Avatar Walter G M Willcox

    Hear hear Ignition !

    It is also interesting to note that B4RN maintained ALL their cabinets despite a large swathe of the Lancaster area being without power for nearly 48 hours in the storm last month. Sadly the BT FTTCs have no provision for standby power so their VDSL services failed.

    • Avatar TheFacts

      FTTC cabinets have battery backup.

    • Avatar Walter G M Willcox

      @ TheFacts,

      I’m sorry you misunderstood my statement which implies that the batteries were of insufficient size to provide power for nearly 48 hours without any means of connecting a generator. Thus the VDSL services failed until mains power was restored.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      Not much point supplying power to a cabinet if the homes have no power?

    • Avatar Vince

      I believe the Openreach FTTC cabs have 8 hours or so of battery backup. That’s not actually unreasonable at all.

      Presumably B4RN have far bigger and far fewer cabinets?

  4. Avatar chris conder

    power to the people.
    of grit.

  5. Avatar Steve

    Just tested my speed on B4RN a few minutes ago, all this for £30 pcm including VAT and NEVER once gone down in nearly 9 months now!

  6. Avatar Snapperfire

    I’m very lucky to be one of B4RN’s customers and I can confirm that the performance is blistering and the service is excellent. Although the vast majority of the infrastructure (duct, fibre, cabinet-mechanical elements)was installed by volunteer amateurs the design and network operation is managed by professionals. To get it off the ground, the vision of a few enthusiasts had to be converted by people willing to risk real £’s in a share application with no guarantee of success, and the support of landowners (through free wayleaves). It is a business model that can work in other rural locations where the incumbent’s (Openreach) copper infrastructure is realistically never going to support more than a few Mb/s and they are unlikely to ever consider supplying fibre to sparsely populated areas.

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