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February 16, 2013

English farmersgoing it aloneon broadband

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The Daily Star

---- — New York state and the federal government have set ambitious goals for the speed and distribution of broadband Internet service.

The election campaign last fall brought forth pronouncements from most state and federal candidates that broadband access, especially in rural areas, must be expanded.

But the broadband coverage map for Otsego, Delaware and surrounding counties, with a few exceptions, looks pretty much as it did 10 years ago — with cities fully wired, albeit with “high” speeds considerably lower than many other areas in the United States, and little or no access outside the larger towns.

Some observers would argue — with considerable justification — that the United States, which invented the Internet, is falling behind other nations in providing access to it. 

Nevertheless, it probably comes as no surprise that a similar situation exists in Great Britain — with glossy government goals that are only marginally attainable and, even then, only in cities. Rural areas are nearly always bypassed.

In the northern English farming area of Lancashire, some farmers looked at maps that showed the expected paths for expansion of high-speed networks. They concluded that if they waited for a telecommunications company to wire their area they would be waiting forever. So they decided to do something about it: build their own fiber-optic network, one that would be right at home in Silicon Valley.

The B4RN network, based in the village of Arkholme, which has fewer than 500 people, has download speeds approaching 500 megabits per second. To put that in perspective, Time Warner’s advertised download speed for its “ultimate” — and its most expensive — residential Internet connection is 50 megabits per second, making the B4RN system 10 times faster.

“There is no hope for many of us in this area to get ‘superfast’ broadband, so we are doing it ourselves,” the upstart access provider boldly proclaims on its website. “This is not a big company from ‘outside’ doing it. It is us, the rural people of Lancashire.”

B4RN, or Broadband for the Rural North, is organized as a nonprofit but is selling stock to complete its infrastructure. Its capital target for the next phase is about $2.6 million, a modest sum by telecom standards. It is charging customers 30 pounds per month, or about $46.50 at Thursday’s exchange rate, and its goal is to provide download speeds of 1 gigabit per second — far beyond what one can get in most of the United States, much less upstate New York.

To achieve that goal, it is a “fiber optics to the home,” or FTTH, network, meaning that the fiber optic part of the system doesn’t end at a hub or at the junction between a trunk line and a residential connection, as do some so-called fiber networks. It goes right into the home.

“Existing copper cables cannot physically supply reliable speeds to the standards being targeted by either the UK Government or the EU — neither can satellite or mobile broadband,” the company’s business plan states. “To ensure that the rural communities attain a true high-speed broadband, which is future-proofed — installed once and capable of all known future speed requirements — the only answer is fiber optics to the home, not to the exchange, not to the village, but directly into your home.”

Besides being a small nonprofit, with no large, institutional stockholders to satisfy or lavishly paid executives, the initiative leverages local resources to keep its costs down.

According to the BBC, a local professor who specializes in computer networks and a farmer’s wife who recently retired as an IT service manager are helping with computer issues, and the company is negotiating with local landowners to bury its lines under their pastures, rather than relying on roadside poles. It’s not hard to imagine that a company organized by local farmers is getting some pretty good deals from fellow farmers on those rights of way.

The company also is training local residents to splice fiber-optic cables and handle many of the other specialized construction tasks. In other words, it’s a telecom version of a buy-local initiative.

“The purpose of the project is to take a new approach to the ownership, financial and deployment models used traditionally, and still proposed by, telecommunications companies,” the company’s website says. “These models invariably leave rural areas outside of the scope of economic viability for the telecoms companies and have helped to create the digital divide between rural and urban Britain.”

Substitute “New York” for “Britain,” and it could describe the state of affairs here. Even the main photo on B4RN’s home page — a rolling pasture with grazing cows — could easily pass for central New York.

Richard Whitby can be reached at 432-1000, ext. 221, or rwhitby@thedailystar.com