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Broadband ISP B4RN Extends FTTP to 25,000 Rural UK Premises

Saturday, Dec 9th, 2023 (12:01 am) - Score 2,920
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Community internet provider B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North), which since 2011 has been working with volunteers inside villages to deploy a new 10Gbps full fibre (FTTP) network across rural parts of England, have revealed that they now cover 25k premises (up from 20k in early 2022) and 13k customers (up from 9,000).

The ISP remains somewhat of a rarity because they’re a registered Community Benefit Society (i.e. they can’t be bought by a commercial operator and profits are distributed back into the community) and one that focuses on building networks for some of the country’s most challenging remote rural homes and businesses – locations that commercial providers would normally find unviable.

NOTE: B4RN’s network exists in parts of Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Northumberland, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Yorkshire. Customers pay from £33 a month for their 1Gbps package (plus a £60 setup fee payable over 12-months) or £150 for 10Gbps (£360 setup). A 1Gbps £15 social tariff also exists.

Originally, the majority of their network was funded by communities investing in the company through shares, and many of those did that while also helping to physically build the new fibre infrastructure (e.g. volunteers on soft digs through fields). But they’ve also since established their own civil engineers and have been harnessing millions of pounds worth of government gigabit vouchers and community investment loans to fuel their efforts.

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The community build approach, as well as the fact that they’re often deploying into otherwise poorly served areas, is a big part of the reason why B4RN has achieved such a consistently high take-up rate (currently 52%). The approach also makes it easier for B4RN to reach favourable (often free) wayleave agreements with local landowners.

Admittedly, it hasn’t always been plain sailing for B4RN, and the last couple of years have been particularly tedious due to disruptions in the Government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme (example), which has impacted a fair few operators – both big and small alike. As a result, the ISP has moved their internal targets away from chasing a set rate of new connections a month, and instead are “focused on ensuring that each new community project is fully sustainable in its own right.”

The accounts for the financial year 22/23 show the network cost as £29,286,098 and the value (cost less depreciation at 4%) as £24,954,081. This helps to underline that while B4RN may appear like a smaller network when you only look at premises passed, this does rather overlook that the geographic size of their network – stretching as it does across a good deal of wide open rural areas – is actually huge (over 2,300km2 of fibre) and cost a lot to build.

Michael Lee, B4RN’s CEO, told ISPreview:

“Of course the ‘real’ value of the network isn’t what it cost to build, and when being compared to other networks we’d like to emphasise that the vast majority of our network is sub-surface in B4RN built and owned infrastructure. We also run two dedicated fibres to every property in the community, direct from the cabinet.”

At this point it’s worth highlighting that B4RN have this year also begun to upgrade their core network to 400G (here) – delivering up to 16TB worth of traffic in the backbone network – in order to make it future-proof through to 2030 (aka – Project HALO). The project aims to support 400G in the rural core network with new Dark Fibre extending about 650km, creating a ring around the north of the UK between Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds (here).

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The provider has now informed us that this new core network is just starting to go live (they’ve installed their first 400GB transmission device and 4.8Tb core backbone router into the network) and the process will be ramped-up further during early 2024. B4RN is using the latest kit from Norwegian firm Smartoptics to support this work and they’re partnering with the Dark Fibre network supplier Zayo to support the new backbone.

One other statistic that’s worth highlighting is with respect to the number of community sites that B4RN have been able to connect to their broadband network, for free. A total of 249 community sites have now been connected to gigabit speeds in this way and that includes around 44 primary schools.

Finally, this year also saw B4RN launch their own VoIP based phone product – B4RN Voice, which costs from £9 per month (£4.50 as a social tariff) and replaces their previous arrangement with Vonage.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
37 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

    52% take up is phenomenal. I doubt anyone else is getting close to this. Well done B4RN.

    1. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

      Perhaps I should declare that I am with BT, I am nowhere near any B4RN area and have no connection to B4RN whatsoever seeing as it’s obviously a problem to some contributors.

    2. Avatar photo Billy says:

      No declaration required in your case @Big Dave, just trying to weed out the glowing recommendations by those providing the service. This always happens whenever an article is about B4RN, its as if they know the article is going to be published and need to upsell a service that already claims a 52% uptake.

  2. Avatar photo chris conder says:

    RFS – ready for service, ie B4RN have built their network with a pair of fibres allocated to each property and duct to boundary of every property. Unlike homes passed, it means a connection is easy for every home. In many areas there is over 90% take up. The average comes down to 52% because some areas already have FTTC, and people there are already convinced they have ‘fibre broadband’, so like many ISPs building fibre networks it is a waiting game until they realise they haven’t.

    1. Avatar photo Billy says:

      May be you should declare your involvement in B4RN when you comment so not to mislead.

    2. Avatar photo 125us says:

      “ The average comes down to 52% because some areas already have FTTC, and people there are already convinced they have ‘fibre broadband’,”

      Do you have evidence to support this statement?

      Research I’ve seen suggests that it’s only a small factor in resistance to moving to FTTP – not the sole one as you are claiming.

    3. Avatar photo GNewton says:

      There is plenty of evidence how the term “fibre” is misused by various ISPs. See e.g. https://www.bt.com/broadband/deals where it uses the terms “Fibre Essential”, “Fibre 1”, “Fibre 2” etc, when none of these packages are fibre broadband. The failure of ASA to do its job has significantly caused confusion by many consumers.

    4. Avatar photo Ad47uk says:

      @GNewton, BT and Openreach have been doing it for years, still posters left on some of the cabinets, saying Fibre is here, and they wonder why some people think they already have fibre and don’t want to change to FTTP. I should think the majority of altnets are FTTP.

      Well done B4RN, carry on.

    5. Avatar photo Winston Smith says:

      Few people outside of this site care how fibrous their broadband is. For many people FFTC speeds will be be adequate and they have no no reason to upgrade. People care about price, performance and service, not technology.

  3. Avatar photo Hilary Carr says:

    Not to mention the brilliant customer service you get from B4RN. Fast help is a phone call away, and not just with the hardware- there are plenty of keen people in the B4RN community who will help you with any techy questions you’re stuck on.

    1. Avatar photo Billy says:

      Declare your involvement in B4RN when you comment so not to mislead.

    2. Avatar photo GNewton says:

      “Declare your involvement in B4RN when you comment so not to mislead.”

      What exactly is misleading here?

    3. Avatar photo Billy says:

      @GNewton Wow so someone endorsing a service from a company they are involved in (but doesn’t declare the fact) isn’t misleading to you? If they had declared they are involved with B4RN people could have made a judgement call on that endorsement.

    4. Avatar photo Oggy says:

      Ah yes Hilary.

      That brilliant, fast phone help that is only available during office hours leaving you stuck if you work during the day.

  4. Avatar photo Billy says:

    B4RN fan club are out in force today, now only need Barry to comment.

    1. Avatar photo Tom says:

      Given the descriptive and detailed nature of each person commenting I assumed they were involved with B4RN in some way.

      Should I declare that my sister in law has a connection and I’m still in awe of it… Does that count as involvement?

      Should we start commenting that we once heard of it in a pub? Should we require you to declare why you are so vehemently jumping down the throats of people providing in one case a technical note about delivery and in another a now about customer service?

    2. Avatar photo Billy says:

      There is a clear reason why people within B4RN are here in force today and saying what they are saying without declaring their personal involvement.

      Stupid comments like “do I have to declare I heard about it the pub or while I was in a brothel” is just a distraction from declaring peoples personal involvement in something they are endorsing.

    3. Avatar photo Barry Forde says:

      @billy – your wish is my command!!!
      I think the take up rate is an interesting topic. Given that B4RN’s build is rural and that the age demographics for rural areas is much older than for urban areas, you would expect a lower sign up rate. 52% is very good when you allow for that and of course its primarily due to a lack of any other viable broadband in the vast majority of its area, plus the strong sense of community boosts it as does things like their friday computer club and other local support groups.
      What would be interesting is to know the take up rate in areas like Halton and Caton where there is a viable alternative provider via FTTC/FTTH. As I’m retired I dont have access to the data anymore but perhaps someone in B4RN could provide that info?

    4. Avatar photo Billy says:

      I knew you couldn’t resist @Barry Forde 😉 hope you’re enjoying retirement.

    5. Avatar photo Ivor says:

      quite right Billy. I didn’t know about Carr until you mentioned it. Don’t know why others are getting so bent out of shape over your ask.

      No problem having B4RN give their first hand opinions but they should be required to declare. If this were an actual forum (like TBB or ISPreview’s own) I presume they’d be asked to prove themselves to a moderator who would then apply a tag.

      I believe other ISPs (Aquiss?) post in these comments sections under those names so it is already made crystal clear.

    6. Avatar photo Billy says:

      @Ivor Unsurprisingly there does seem to been a lot of pushback on my suggestion, I simply wanted clear signage so there is no doubt they are part of B4RN when giving a B4RN endorsement. A lot of regular visitors to this site will know of Conder mainly because of the constant slamming of Openreach but a lot won’t know about Carr or even both if they are new to the site.

      Its really simple, they should be professional and state “B4RN” in addition to their name in the space given for the commenters name. Lets see if they want to be professional or underhand in the future.

  5. Avatar photo Brin says:

    Well said Tom. B4RN and Chris Conder have inspired poeple in the UK and across the world to get up and do it themselves. I spent hundreds of hours on our community broadband, 400 connections encouraged by their example . I have NO repeat NO connection with B4RN.
    Keyboard warriors who comment from a sedentary position should be treated with the respect they deserve
    B4RN have connected so many people and comunities whom otherisps would never have been provided with 1 Gig broaband

    1. Avatar photo Billy says:

      Please see my comments to Tom, the guy who’s sister in law has a connection with B4RN

  6. Avatar photo Adam West says:

    “the ISP has moved their internal targets away from chasing a set rate of new connections a month, and instead are “focused on ensuring that each new community project is fully sustainable in its own right.”

    Have rural communities been dropped or will they miss out because of this? I vaguely remember something about this being commented on before.

    1. Avatar photo Alex A says:

      B4RN changed its build model to focus on gigabit vouchers rather than selling shares to the community, understandable as its a lot easier to take a cash grant than to raise money form individuals.

      However, the vouchers are only valid if there is no commercial build, as soon as a commercial build is announced the area is invalid for vouchers. This means that voucher build has to be done fairly quickly to minimise the risk of someone announcing commercial build part way through.

    2. Avatar photo Adam West says:

      @Alex A

      I hope there are not many examples of communities being abandoned by B4RN due to vouchers getting pulled.

    3. Avatar photo Peter Delaney says:

      I don’t know how many communities but there are some.

      Loss of vouchers, unless it is a temporary situation, is generally terminal for a B4RN project.

      As @Alex A says, voucher funding covers the majority of the build cost these days so replacing it if it is suddenly lost is problematic to say the least.

      Given the trauma caused to projects when this happens, I would image B4RN are far more circumspect now about which projects they will support and which stand the best chance of retaining continuing voucher coverage during their lifetime.

      It won’t be just the project community that loses out if vouchers are withdrawn. B4RN themeslves will have made a considerable investment in time and effort to realise a project which will be a total loss if it is canned.

      If vouchers have been withdrawn, it is usually because another government revenue stream (mostly regional procurements these days) is footing the bill or a commercial builder has stepped in. Voucher eligibility rules changes can also be a factor.

      In any case, there is still an intention to build full fibre so the affected residents will still get a service. Just not from B4RN and often with considerable delay.

      However, the reasonable certainty that another network builder will provide a service (eventually) without any investment required from potential subscribers makes the task of raising a huge chunk of additional funds for a (now competing) B4RN project a big, if not impossible, ask.

      Our own project died when a commercial network builder announced a build and then didn’t do it. However, voucher funding was not reinstated and then the regional procurement kicked in.

      So, people who could have expected B4RN gigabit symmetrical broadband in 2021 are still waiting for an FTTP service that will only materialise after the regional procurement is signed in Q1 next year, the usual months of engineering surveys have been completed, and they have been slotted in somewhere in the 17,000 premises build queue.

      Ho Hum.

    4. Avatar photo Adam West says:

      Thank you @Peter Delaney, yours was the one I remember reading about on this site.

    5. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

      @Peter Delaney

      It amazes me that Ofcom doesn’t have a system of fines for companies who announce builds then fail to complete them in a specified time (I assume they don’t, correct me if I’m wrong). Not only does it affect gigabit vouchers it may also put off other commercial builders who may have stopped their own building plans in response.

  7. Avatar photo father_ted says:

    I have zero affiliation with B4RN but am highly impressed. Those kinds of projects only get started due to a large amount of determination, and it sounds like they’ve continued to invest in the network.

    I wish them every success.

  8. Avatar photo chris conder says:

    @Oggy, the phone help is available 24/7, 365 days a year, from 8.30 am to 9pm. also voicemails are monitored if the lines are busy sometimes even later than 9pm. The helpdesk is local and dedicated. Regarding take up in fttc areas, I don’t have data, I just speak to lots of people involved, and a lot are quite happy with their ‘upto’ fttc service and their sky satellite tv. Covid brought a lot of new customers to B4RN in these areas when they tried to work from home and homeschool the kids, but almost each one you chat to tries to convince you they really do have a fibre down their phone lines. I don’t mind being called a fan. Not many other companies have a fan club. @father_ted there are several ongoing and soon to start rural projects in the pipeline. Bit of a lottery with voucher areas these days though.

    1. Avatar photo Oggy says:

      “phone help is available 24/7, 365 days a year, from 8.30 am to 9pm”

      The website says Monday-Friday 9am to 5pm and then you say it is both available 24/7, my understanding of 24/7 is 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, and from 830am to 9pm!

      Three different lots of ‘information’ there!

  9. Avatar photo chris conder says:

    sorry @Oggy my mistake, the network is monitored 24/7 the helpdesk is 8.30 to 9pm. the website is obviously in need of an update.

    1. Avatar photo Sid says:

      Shame about your lack of attention to detail Ms B4RN

  10. Avatar photo Xinif says:

    But should take example from them. I respect people like B4rn at least they know what they doing. By engineers are clowns and can never satisfy customers.

  11. Avatar photo Anon says:

    They do cracking work, but I always think the community provider angle is misleading, their share yield is better than Openreach!

  12. Avatar photo Alex Finch says:

    I’m pretty sure B4RN NEVER pay for wayleaves, which is not what the article says. This sometimes means connections don’t happen. Certainly that was my understanding when the network was installed in my village. Yes I am another contented B4RN custome and shareholder, and yes I did my bit digging trenches etc. when I could.

Comments are closed

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