Friday, September 10, 2010

Rory Stewart MP on rural broadband

A very interesting post on Rory Stewart's (MP for Penrith & the Border) blog:
“My Cumbrian constituency is so sparsely populated that government could not afford to deliver broadband to everyone in the next five years and businesses or charities or individuals wouldn’t either (laying the fibre-optic cabling alone could cost 40 million pounds). But in a Big Society model the government could build a high-speed cabinet in each parish (which would just about be affordable) and encourage the community to take it from there. Each parish could then choose its own system, choose between a cheaper wireless system or a more expensive fibre system, ask local farmers to dig the fibre-optic trenches themselves (which would cost a fifth of BT doing it) and run their own network (or get a contractor to do so for them). Government could play an important role by opening access to primary schools' cables, helping communities to fire radio signals from mobile telephone masts; asking favours from railway companies to access their fibre and making soft loans (allowing a householder to repay a thousand pounds investment in broadband over twenty years not one). But government would then be contributing a public asset rather than cash; political support rather than instruction; a loan not a grant and it would be abolishing laws rather than making new ones. And the end result is not a ‘cut’ but instead a community getting something which the government would never have delivered: an opportunity for Cumbrians to consult a medical specialist in Kent or learn about new approaches to grass management from an expert from Wales down a live video-link without leaving home.”
I've discussed the opportunities that the re-use of school broadband infrastructure offers in a number of previous posts (see here, here and also here). This was also flagged by ministers at BDUK's industry day in July which I was lucky enough to attend, while this previous post describes a project in Lincolnshire already implementing an approach very similar to what Rory envisages above.

It will be interesting and hopefully encouraging to see the extent to which industry responses to BDUK's USC theoretical exercises address re-use of existing public infrastructure. The recently announced cuts to the Harnessing Technology Grant, the principal funding stream for schools' ICT, are a concern here though - for the details see here and also this commentary from the TES.

While further information from the Department for Education (available here, see the Q&A download) accurately describes existing contracts for school broadband provision as "a call on revenue, not capital, funding" (the Harnessing Technology Grant is a capital grant, with the same Q&A document reporting that "schools revenue funding has been protected"), these funding cuts have nevertheless created complications in sustaining crucial ICT infrastructures that schools and local authorities could well have done without. And clearly the cuts could also jeopardise the potential for re-use of school broadband infrastructure in rural communities, which I'm sure is the last thing anyone wants.

I'm also attending Rory Stewart's now sold-out broadband conference in Penrith on 18th September, which is shaping up to be a very interesting event. Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, is attending as well.

Some potential here to join priorities up across different government departments perhaps? A full report to follow here as soon as possible after the event.


  1. We can live in hope for some joined up thinking can't we? If it doesn't come from the rural broadband conference I doubt it ever will. Northerners are pretty good at cutting through the BS.
    There has been no joining of dots so far, too many silo thinkers at westminster, but hopefully big society will prove that there is no need for excessive paperwork and much legislation is totally out of date. If a council can show sense then many rural broadband projects could fly. I have been told that to go under a railway line could take up to 2 years in paperwork alone. All this sort of stuff is what government could sort out, it could save us a fortune in time, effort and money. Government could do other things to level the playing field such as stopping the unfair windows tax. (VOA) It could also make ofcom work for the people and not the telcos. So many things which won't cost money could be done, and rural people and businesses could lay the infrastructure we need for NGA without massive handouts. aye.
    Joined up thinking. Working together. Collaboration.
    That is what we are all hoping will happen.
    see you at the conference...

  2. Should Government fund and deliver it??? I ask this advisedly!

    I live here in Rory's constituency and it would be nice to be asked
    What are we willing to pay?
    What are we willing to do to get it?

    Because I think if we were actually asked, it could well turn out that much of the investment is already here, as well as those able to deliver the solution eg Lucid etc.

    £40 million for a 25+year investment for 50,000 people in Eden is actually a pittance. I am trying to run a business - I'll pay. Not the £40+M on my own, obviously, ;o) but I'll put my bit in, the same as I do with the school, the fundraising for the GP equipment, Mountain Rescue, gritting the roads (we have been known to buy our own salt regularly), spending in the Co-op etc etc etc.

    Give us access to existing infrastructure, keep the very expensive southern consultants out of our hair so we can JFDI, and let's talk turkey /Big Society with Eden District Council, CLEO, and Cumbria County Council about places where they can make real world savings delivering the services this community needs at a fraction of the cost and meet their budget cut requirements for the Treasury without losing a single service.

    We are a vanguard community with untold generations who have delivered solutions before us. We need to JFDI and make this happen and I look forward to your contribution at the colloquia on Friday and sat and the main event.

  3. Cybersavvy is correct, there is way to much paperwork which could all possible be scrapped. I believe in a thing called "common sense" i'm not sure if the government has heard of that word.

    I'm a strong believer of JFDI, become just need the commonsense which "consulatants" and government never seem to have.