Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rural Broadband - Reframing the Debate

At the end of last month, the Plunkett Foundation and the Carnegie UK Trust published a new report calling for a new approach to delivering broadband for rural communities.

Rural Broadband - Reframing the Debate  aims to "bring a new angle to the rural broadband debate – focusing on how rural communities, inspired by the range of remarkable opportunities that high speed broadband can offer, can take greater ownership and leadership of this agenda in a range of different ways and play a central role in the provision of broadband services in their local area." This acknowledges the Government's target that 90% of premises in each local authority area should be able to access superfast (>24Mbps) broadband services by 2015, leaving the final 10% only able to access services offering a minimum speed of 2Mbps (the Government's universal service commitment, or USC).

This necessitates communities taking the initiative themselves if they are to secure faster speeds, according to the report; however it seems only a few are doing so at the moment:
"For many rural communities, solving the issue of high speed broadband provision can feel like an impossible problem. Due to the perceived complexity of the current technical broadband solutions, too few rural communities are being inspired at present to solve the broadband conundrum that they are facing. The knock on impact is that rural communities are not getting access to the community services that they want and need. As ever-increasing speeds of broadband provision become available in urban areas this problem of ‘digital exclusion’ is only going to be exacerbated for those remote rural communities who have little chance of accessing high speed broadband services in the short to medium-term."
A better approach would be to focus on inspiring and empowering communities:
"The Plunkett Foundation and the Carnegie UK Trust believe that governments and markets alone cannot meet the high aspirations of rural communities. Rural communities themselves, particularly in remote rural communities where distances are greater and the population more dispersed, must play a central role in achieving the services that they require. Therefore there is a need to reframe the rural broadband debate. We need to change from the current top down approach, where broadband solutions are not obvious to communities, to an approach that focuses on inspiring rural communities with what is possible using high speed broadband. A handful of community-led models are already in existence and working successfully across the UK, Ireland and internationally."
The report acknowledges that putting a broadband solution in place is far from straightforward for a community, but suggests that with the right support and guidance communities can do it themselves, citing the success of projects such as B4RN, Cybermoor and several others as examples of what can be achieved.

The report's recommendations include encouraging local authorities to investigate how their broadband infrastructures might be used to assist rural communities:
"…some public services, such as schools networks, have significant IT networks and some of these could potentially be used by communities as building blocks for establishing their own broadband infrastructure. Great Asby for example in Cumbria has developed wifi broadband that connects with high speed fibre broadband connections at the village school."
A similar approach has been taken in North Yorkshire and Hampshire - more on this here. Recommendations for Government include having "a clear strategy and commitment to providing long-term support for the development of community broadband solutions particularly for those rural communities at risk of not getting high speed broadband".

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