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ISP B4RN Extend Rural Full Fibre Network to 17,000 UK Premises

Monday, June 21st, 2021 (12:01 am) - Score 1,632
b4rn 2020 fibre laying

The B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) project, which is deploying a 10Gbps capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network across rural premises in several English counties, has revealed that they’ve now covered around 17,000 premises (8,600 connected customers) and are trialling a new £5 Connect Plus tariff.

The provider, which is a registered Community Benefit Society (i.e. it can’t be bought by a commercial operator and profits are distributed back into the community), first began deploying “full fibre” services to remote rural homes in Lancashire during 2012, and they’ve since expanded across various parts of Cheshire, Cumbria, Northumberland, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Yorkshire.

NOTE: Customers of the service pay £30 per month for a symmetric 1Gbps connection (plus £150 installation) and if you want 10Gbps then that will set you back £150 per month (plus £360 installation).

Originally, the majority of their network was funded by communities investing in the company through shares, and many of those did so while also helping to physically build the new fibre infrastructure (volunteers on soft digs through fields etc.). But more recently they’ve also been harnessing millions in gigabit vouchers and community investor loans, which has enabled them to build faster and establish their own team of civil engineers.

Sadly, the provider has faced some disruption to their plans during 2020, which was mostly as a result of several COVID-19 related lockdowns and the tier system that was introduced in between. In short, the pandemic restrictions made it harder to recruit, train and work with volunteer groups and for the volunteers themselves to engage with their communities.

But that doesn’t appear to have dampened their expectations for the future, particularly now that work has returned to a more normal level.

Michael Lee, B4RN’s CEO, told ISPreview.co.uk:

“We are currently at c17,000 properties passed, with c8,600 connected customers. This includes 115 places of worship, small schools and other community assets receiving free service. Projects where we are currently in-build will see us pass another c7,200 properties, and a further c27,000 properties fall under areas which are in the planning stage.

In the five-year window, B4RN is targeting c46,000 more properties passed on top of that. In all cases, we assume a 50% connection rate based on our historical average. Much of our planned and targeted future coverage lies around the traditional ‘B4RNland’ of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Northumberland and, particularly, Cumbria. Expansion is also planned around our network in Norfolk.”

One of the provider’s biggest achievements on this journey only came recently after they, backed by local volunteers, announced the completion of their build across the large village of Halton (Lancashire), which was one of their largest single deployments and serves c.1,000 premises. For the harder parts, B4RN used a narrow trenching, 100mm, dig model along the pavements and roads (dropping a Toby Box outside each home).

The Halton build, was took 10-months from start to finish, was the first job for their “B4RN Village” build programme – Levens (Cumbria) will be the next to benefit from this. In addition, the provider has revealed to us that they’re also trialling a new offer called Connect+ (pronounced “Connect Plus“) in these two villages.

Essentially, people locked into a contract with another ISP will be able to get connected to B4RN and pay just £5 per month for service, at least until their existing contract ends – the customer then moves on to a standard monthly tariff at £30 per month. The only catch is that you’ll still have to pay their £150 installation fee, but otherwise they continue to be one of the UK market’s cheapest gigabit broadband providers.

Suffice to say, B4RN has come a very long way since those early days in 2012, and they’re still putting many of their bigger rivals to shame. We can’t wait to see what they’re able to achieve over the next 5 years. JFDI.

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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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15 Responses
  1. CarlT says:

    Nice story, Mark, and congratulations to the team at B4RN on their success.

  2. Power to the People says:

    Yes this is certainly a great success story. It’s a shame we don’t see other community projects growing at the same scale. We’ll done B4RN it’s a mighty achievement.

  3. FibreBubble says:

    Most unsafe streetworks of the year award.

  4. Barry Forde says:

    I see that the Halton Exchange is in the list of those planned for FTTP by OR under the self funded 3.5M rural properties plan. I doubt they knew B4RN was busy building there when they put it in the list but now that B4RN has completed a 100% build of Halton I wonder if they will go ahead with an overbuild or shift their investment somewhere rural and not served by fibre?

    1. - says:

      Carry on with overbuilding obviously! Silly question 😉

    2. NE555 says:

      Almost certainly OR will still overbuild. If they have lost customers from their copper network to B4RN, there is a good business case to build fibre and capture at least some of them back again. It’s a better business case than investing in an area where the only other choice is Openreach copper.

      OTOH, it was a canny move for B4RN to charge the £150 install fee up-front, instead of hiding it in the monthly fee. Firstly, it means B4RN customers get the service cheaper over the long term. Secondly, it means they have a personal investment which makes them less likely to want to switch to an OR-based provider.

    3. FibreFred says:

      B4RN cover 17000 premises and have 8600 connected so there’s room for other providers, I’m sure they will go ahead with their plans.

  5. Barry Forde says:

    @NE555 – Well clearly they will have lost customers to B4RN and would like them back but its a challenge for them. Halton already has FTTC so the c50% who have opted to take B4RN are either after higher speeds or want to support their community’s efforts building a community owned fibre network. If its the former then OR has a problem in that the B4RN pricing is highly competitive at speeds above FTTC. If its the latter then its unlikely many will abandon “their” project for OR wholesale products. So the probability is that OR investment would achieve little in the way of return. As OR is a commercial entity surely they would prefer to target investment where the returns are best? My belief is that B4RN can see off any competition from OR and need not worry too much about it — so long as it delivers its current excellent customer service and sensible pricing.

    1. 125us says:

      You’re forgetting that one of the gains for OR is no longer having to maintain a local exchange or the copper network. If they don’t roll out FTTP, even where it is 100% overbuild, they have an ongoing cost that can’t be removed.

  6. dave jones says:

    In order for b4rn to retain customers they could do with a £20-23/month tier with much lower speeds e.g 25mbps down 5mbps up. As they only have just over a 50% take-up rate.

    1. Barry Forde says:

      If someone wanted the lower speed/cost service you suggest then they wouldn’t have moved to B4RN and would/will have taken an FTTC service from one of the cheaper OR retailers. Therefore it wouldn’t be about retaining customers but attracting new. The real question is around should B4RN offer a lower quality service to try and attract some additional low revenue customers or should it stick to being a premium service? Also the vast majority of B4RN’s footprint is outside of the areas OR are proposing doing FTTP in. The customers there realise that only the community/B4RN is going to build to them as the costs are too high for OR and they accept that the service price has to reflect that, at least to some extent. Horses for courses?

    2. Jonathan says:

      Lower speeds is tricky for B4RN. They are a PtP fully optical network using BiDi connections. A lower speed would mean they need to have some mechanism for throttling the connection, which currently they don’t have. It’s basically a layer two Ethernet network. Conceptually it’s a bit like having everyone plug a router into a gigabit Ethernet switch just with very long leads.
      They could possibly use 100BASE-BX SFP’s or maybe force the switch port to 100Mbps if the SFP’s they are using support that. Though you are still left with a 100Mbps symmetrical connection which is currently good enough for many/most people and would probably just end up cannibalizing their existing customer base which is not going to be good business for them.
      The next option would be to see if you can force a 10Mbps connection but I am not sure that is even possible and a 10Mbps connection is kind of pointless. Perhaps a cheaper 100Mbps connection for those on Universal credit might be an idea, it is after all a Community Benefit Society. However in general slower speeds simply don’t make sense from a business or technical perspective.
      I am actually waiting for them to announce a 25Gbps connection as BiDi 25Gbps SFP28 optics are now readily available if a little pricey.

  7. Barry Forde says:

    On a slightly off pist track I’ve been wondering about LEO as an additional option. (I hear gasps of astonishment from you all based on my Fibre is king history). For instance OneWebs model of having a hub serving a local cluster might have a place in rollouts and emergency repairs. Traditionally there is a longish phase when networks are extended out to reach new areas wanting service. This is a sterile period with plenty of costs but no revenue. However if the model changed to doing the serving FTTH hub first and the associated local customer connections and used something like the OneWeb node to provide connectivity then the possibility of early service, and revenue with it, and customer sign up, is on the cards. So long as the customers were made fully aware of it being a temp arrangement whilst the full build to their area was underway, and a lower monthly charge applied reflecting the lower standards it might work. I know OR have EAD circuits but these are painfully expensive to deploy due to ECCs and also long winded and have no reuse potential. Something like a OneWeb hub can be deployed in an afternoon and repositioned later when the dig in has been done.
    I’ve seen figures of £6K for the hub and 100-150Mbs bandwidth. Not brilliant but as a stop gap with corresponding charges it might be ok. Does anyone have any accurate data on where OneWeb is with cost/speed? Is this something to think about?

  8. Scottie says:

    Honestly would be surprised if at some point 100% of the B4rN network will be overbuilt by providers including Openreach. The model is not industrial enough really and they are certainly not big enough to bid for any of the new gigabit contracts which will
    Erode capacity further for vouchers . Ie there will be none to go at soon once procurement starts – after that’s what model will they work too ? Commercial only or private funding model only ?

    1. Barry Forde says:

      @Scottie – I’m not convinced that they will be 100% overbuilt. Certainly there will be some overbuild, mainly by OR, but the high cost of deep rural builds is likely to deter other altnets. So long as the overbuilds are commercially funded and don’t involve public money then its a good thing, competition always delivers better service than monopolies.
      However I see no problems with B4RN meeting that competition head on, they have many things in their favour and will maintain a good market share and prosper.
      Once we hit 2026 and the public support for gig service dries up I think they will continue to grow with both community investment and commercial loans.

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