Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border on the challenges and benefits of bringing superfast broadband to his constituency.
Nothing that I have done in my short time in parliament has been as exciting or as fulfilling as broadband. My constituency of Penrith and the Border is the largest in England and consists of over 200 villages.
Our greatest problems stem from distance and isolation. My neighbour with Parkinson’s has to drive to Newcastle Hospital – a four hour round trip – just to chat to a neurologist. Village schools are closing: children have to travel ever further and find it more difficult for them to stay after class. We are struggling to keep young people in villages partly because of the low wages (some of our hill-farmers have incomes of less than £6,000 a year).
Superfast broadband is an answer to so many issues of isolation. It is not just that we could attract new businesses, such as production companies, that need super-fast connections: farmers could fill forms online; our food shops could market themselves in Europe; patients could talk to hospital consultants down an internet video link, without leaving home; children could take classes, which they couldn’t find in the county; and people might decide again to work and bring their families up in villages. But because we are not simply the ‘last third’ in the country but probably the ‘last twentieth’, neither government nor telecoms giants, have ever been able to come up with an affordable and efficient scheme.
This situation is being turned around by our communities. Daniel, Brian and Cybermoor in Alston were among the earliest movers in the country – digging in fibre themselves at a fraction of the cost quoted by commercial companies. Then Miles in Great Asby – twenty-five miles away – launched its own network. Again they were in an area without a fibre-enabled telephone cabinet, dependant on copper wire and never able to acquire broadband. But they uncovered an entire alternative fibre network – separate from the commercial system – running to the local primary school. They broke out from that fibre, designing their own new wireless networks strung from belltowers, dug their own fibre trenches (at a fraction of the cost), signing up record numbers of residents for the service.
As the local MP, I held a broadband conference in Penrith in September to promote Cumbrian efforts to ministers and companies and even senior American officials. But things only really took off when we got a hundred and twenty more Cumbrian villages to visit Great Asby and study the model. Almost all of them have now decided to launch their own schemes.
They have flooded into our new website . Different groups have mushroomed online to explore and propose almost every conceivable solution and dimension of rural broadband. Thane is focused on building infrastructure, Libby on travelling around, recording existing cabinets, a Penrith company is working pro-bono to provide a complete detailed map of the fibre (which we could not get form anywhere); Kate on getting more people online: still others are looking at piloting new government services online from health to education which could transform services in rural areas. A single proposal from Barry to build his own independent fibre backhaul has drawn in nearly 300 posts.
Rural big society
Even more encouraging is the fact that rather than being simply terrified of this anarchic burst of creativity and community enthusiasm, government seems to be excited. Our Eden communities have been formally recognised as the national rural ‘Big Society’ vanguard, and a team of Whitehall civil servants has been assigned to support us. We have been made one of four national broadband pilots and we have received financial support from the treasury. At a national level are discussing opening up ducts and poles to allow new networks to be laid; they are exploring how to allow communities to build their own networks and then connect them to pre-existing fiber-optic cable at an affordable rate. Some of the big companies are responding to this competition by offering prices and technological solutions and compromises which seemed inconceivable a few months’ ago.
At a local level, the government is considering what changes we could introduce to allow families to string fibre to their homes, easily and affordably, even where a big telecoms company owns the cabinet from which it runs. And different departments are looking at piloting more and more of their new programs in our area: medical tests from homes, taking new services online, developing new business applications and even dealing with justice. Mapping, installing and negotiating broadband is now so central to my life as an MP, that I have had to recruit and fund a full-time broadband team.
But there are still very serious and difficult questions. Will each village be allowed to choose whether to have a community-owned loop? Will subsidies distort the eventual outcome? Would they be allowed to clip affordably onto existing commercial fibre? Will companies provide them with services like TV? Will central or county government stifle parish solutions? We need to go far beyond pressing the county council (which is running the procurement) to answer these questions. We also must ensure that the vulnerable are not excluded; that alternative methods of communication from letters to buses continue to be supported; and that the community networks do not simply become new monopolies. The technological, commercial, financial and legal problems are vast. Idealistic activists, civil servants at all levels, and giant companies all don’t always trust each other and don’t always compromise enough.
But if we may be unable to achieve all of our dreams, I still think we can achieve far more than we feared six months ago. Every meeting, every initiative, the energy of a hundred people and every post on broadbandcumbria.com, proves and reconfirms the drive of Cumbrian communities. I have little doubt that they will now give the most sparsely populated constituency in England the fastest broadband network in Europe. That in the process they will redefine our approach to technology, to finance, to legislation, to procurement, to monopolies and to the relationship between governments, companies and communities.
And that this technological and democratic miracle can spread across rural Britain. Please join us, sign up as a member on our new website and join the discussion.