Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Who provides the last mile, if schools' broadband provides the backhaul?

Both Becta and the National Education Network responded earlier this year to BIS's consultation on proposals for a Next Generation Fund, to flag the opportunity that school broadband infrastructure offers: specifically, the potential to provide backhaul and middle-mile connectivity for areas currently under- or un-served by current consumer broadband providers. Both responses are available on Becta's website here, and were tabled at the Education Network Governing Council meeting on 17th June 2010.

This isn't a silver bullet fix for broadband notspots, but there are a number of instances where rural schools' broadband connectivity could potentially be utilised by neighbouring premises that can't access consumer DSL or mobile broadband services. A school may be the only premise in a rural village with broadband, the local authority and Regional Broadband Consortium having funded the provision of a connection, sometimes via fibre. The potential for re-use of this public sector infrastructure has been recognised by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) and the concept received a number of mentions during their recent industry day.

So, if school broadband infrastructure can provide the middle mile and backhaul, who might provide the last mile (or, if you prefer, the first mile) to connect neighbouring premises? I think there are two broad categories of third party that could do this: commercial providers that might be interested in providing a service in a range of different locations, and local "ground-up" community projects. My guess (which may be incorrect) is that local community projects, while innovative and exciting, may not have the capacity to deliver services outside of their respective patches, but such projects nevertheless have much expertise and experience to share for the benefit of others.

Some examples of commercial providers I've come across so far:
  • Exstream Networks - see this YouTube video for Exstream's approach to broadband provision for the Duddon Valley in Cumbria;
  • 802 Global – involved in the much-publicised Alston Cybermoor project, about which more here;
  • CI-Net – broadband for Solihull community housing (not rural, but the technology used is interesting);
  • County Broadband - "Now delivering high speed broadband to the forgotten places".
And some community projects:
  • NextGenUs - a Community Interest Company, providing services in Newton Upon Rawcliffe and Stape in North Yorkshire. An extract from their blog: "The NextGenUs network takes a symmetric fibre-optic direct internet access feed from a school and takes that connection on a twenty plus kilometer journey to reach into the local community, from where service is locally distributed using advanced wireless technology capable of supporting true world-class performance. This particular methodology we call FiWi (Fibre and Wireless), a technique that offers a rapid route and least cost means to provide service where it is required now." The school connection is provided by NYnet - more on this in this previous post (also see Beeline Broadband);
  • Great Asby Broaband, Cumbria, another Community Interest Company like NextGenus;
  • Wray Community Communications, which has been supported by the University of Lancaster;
  • South Witham Broadband, Lincolnshire (also see here for more on their story);
  • Micklefield Community Broadband Network, east of Leeds, also see here and here for details of related (I think?) projects;
  • Angus Broadband Co-operative Ltd, Scotland - a bit of a "watch this space", this one;
  • Martley Web Mesh, Worcestershire, more here;
  • Reeth Rural Radio Net, North Yorkshire.
I'm sure there are many more, the Communications Consumer Panel updated their listing of community broadband projects in October 2009 and it now includes details of more than 40 initiatives. I'd be only too pleased to receive additions to the above, a forum for a "show and tell" between the community broadband and schools' broadband communities might be a good way to take this forward perhaps?

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