Rural Broadband – Is BT good for rural communities?

Everyone is delighted at BT's announcement on 27 April 2004 that they are abandoning trigger level campaigns. Like the proverbial good genie, BT is going to enable any exchange with a trigger level set. No more campaigning required. Most people will have access to ADSL by the summer of 2005. Our wishes have all come true. Or have they?

There is no doubt that this is a very popular measure, the sort of thing a government would love to do just before an election. In the short term ADSL will be fine for most people. As a rural regeneration charity, ruralnet|uk will be promoting the rapid uptake of the service as it becomes available. But that is not all we will be doing.

BT was reluctant to abandon the trigger level campaign as it involved more than 3,000 volunteers promoting ADSL; for nothing. Let's say, conservatively, that these have each put in 10 hours' work (most will have put in a lot more) and their time is worth a conservative £10/hour. That's £300,000. You can double that for the overhead costs which BT didn't incur, and double it again for non-paid sales bonuses. Which makes £1.2m. However, this is small change when compared with the costs that BT have been incurring through engineers having to flit from exchange to exchange, in a haphazard response to consumer demand.

Abandoning trigger levels means that BT can now control which exchanges are fixed, and when. They can thereby enable exchanges in an engineeringly efficient manner.

Bell Heads vs Net Heads

On the face of it, it seems perverse and churlish to criticise BT's initiative. Doesn't it? Well no actually. When a genie grants your wish, it's best to look hard at what you're really getting. Through this move, innovation will be stifled and competition reduced. Smoke has been thrown in the eyes of some of the senior decision makers who now believe, and will say, that the 'broadband issue' has been resolved. It hasn't and here is why.

When the railways came along nearly 200 years ago, this spelt doom for the operators of the canal network. However, we did not nurture the new technology by suggesting that railway tracks should be laid along tow paths. We did not put the horses out to grass and shackle the new trains to canal boats. Neither did we make trains go through locks! But this is what we are doing by our current obsession with ADSL delivered through the antiquated telephone lines.

ADSL was recently described by a senior BT manager as a 'nurturing technology'. This is shorthand for "it's not very fast and will be redundant in a few years' time". Like ISDN before it, ADSL will soon be the slowest boat to China. And, like ISDN today, it will not support the applications most people and businesses will want to run.

ADSL is promoted by the 'Bell Heads'. Those who have gained their experience or have a vested interest in the telephone network.

Throw off the shackles of the telephone network, start talking about proper, future-proof broadband delivered by visionaries, using the latest technology, and it gets very very exciting indeed. This is the territory of the 'Net Heads' and the tragedy of BT's ADSL announcement is that the Net Heads have had the rug pulled out from under their feet. But don't feel sorry for the 'Net Heads'. They will go off and apply their enthusiasm, vision and entrepreneurship to something else. We need to worry about ourselves, the inhabitants of rural areas. Because when the Net Heads go, so does the prospect of future-proof broadband: we will be committed to a world where bandwidth is rationed and throttled in the interests of delivering shareholder value. Nobody is against shareholder benefits if there is a level playing field. Which of course there is not.

Real Broadband

So what have these Net Heads got in their box of tricks? Once you stop thinking broadband has to be delivered through telephone lines, then it is amazing what you can do. And you can do it now and affordably. Community broadband projects split broadband into two. They build very very high speed community networks in a local area, and then they plug these into the internet with as fast a connection as they can afford. The high-speed community network can support desktop video conferencing (for everyone), CCTV, health and care applications, proper distributed working, local (video) phone calls, live video links to anywhere in the community, applications which properly integrate the local schools into their community, real integrated service delivery and many more applications that we haven't thought of yet, but will as soon as we get our hands on this technology. The more people in the community that use these networks, the faster the link can be to the rest of the world. If most of the community is seduced by the promise of ADSL then community networks can be seen, by outsiders and potential funders, to be non-viable. However, this is a serious misconception. Selling ADSL, like the community does in the Calder Valley, can provide community broadband initiatives with the foundation they need to roll out real broadband. This is of interest to those who can't get ADSL now and those who do not want to go through ADSL initiation on their way to real broadband.

The Community Effect

As we have seen, BT Wholesale has very cleverly used the power of the community in its trigger level campaigns. However, this can be moved to an even higher level. If local people and businesses are properly engaged in determining what the service should be and how it should be run, the commitment that results generates innovation in the development of new applications, social inclusion, very high levels of local take up and commitment that results in very low 'churn'.

Business Broadband

The 'A' in ADSL is important. It stands for 'asymmetric' this means that the high speeds talked about only work in one direction, that is into your home or business. Outward speeds are only a fraction of the broadband speeds quoted. This is OK (just about!) if you are a consumer of information services but no good at all if you are a producer and need to get your services out to others as quickly as possible. So ADSL is no good at all as a basis for encouraging the development of knowledge-based businesses in rural areas.

The message for gatekeepers to broadband funding The message is simple. Don't abandon the Net Heads. If you want your region to be in the top ten in Europe then you need to invest in, and partner with, the Net-Heads not the Bell-Heads. This is where the vision and the future lie. The broadband issue has not been solved by BT's announcement. Maybe they've granted the first of your three wishes, but keep thinking hard about the next two: internet telephony is one genie that's now out of the bottle – and it isn't going back in.

Acknowledgements
Malcolm Matson for the canal/railway analogy.
The many community broadband activists that I have been inspired by the Community Broadband Network – see www.broadband-uk.coop
The ruralnet|uk team for providing the platform for ruralnet|uk's broadband work – see www.ruralnetuk.org
Jane Berry for her significant contribution to the first draft.
The members of the Community Broadband Network for their comments on the first draft.

Simon Berry
Chief Executive, ruralnet|uk
Chairman, Community Broadband Network

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