Defining the Digital Hub

15:30 in News by Louis Mosley

What did Jeremy Hunt mean when he announced last week that every rural community in Britain would get a “digital hub” by 2015? Ever since, the fells and dales of Cumbria – not to mention the county’s blogosphere – have been humming with different definitions.

ABOVE: Peter Smith, Lance Greenhalgh, Freddy Markham and Charles Paxton of the Lyvennet Valley Broadband Group meet on Friday in the Tufton Arms in Appleby to discuss the definition of a “Digital Hub”.

But what do communities want?

Ultimately, it will be up to Cumbria County Council to define the “Digital Hub” as part of the tender document that it will publish next year. But the needs and requirements of communities should shape this definition.

“Digital Hubs” will be built with public subsidy, so it is only fair that communities are given a say in how this money is spent.

The risk is that Cumbria County Council will use BDUK’s £10m to subsidise a supplier to run fibre to exchanges and cabinets closed to the community (FTTC), with cabinets being re-defined as “Digital Hubs”. These cabinets would be the property of the supplier and no community would have the right to use them to extend a fibre network to the premises (FTTP).

This would dash the hopes of communities that want to run FTTP. As Miles Mandelson noted in the comments:

“If the cabinets are exclusively for onward connection to households by copper they cannot be regarded as fit for purpose. Copper has no place in NGA broadband. If it’s allowed to form part of the new infrastructure then it’s the generation after next that will have to sort the mess out.”

So what are the alternatives?

As a first option, communities could demand that suppliers install cabinets that are FTTP enabled. Suppliers would be expected to undertake to work with communities to extend FTTP wherever there is demand for it, using community action - demand aggregation, concessions on wayleaves, self-dig - to ‘gap fund’ the roll-out. In this model, communities would work alongside the supplier to lower the cost of FTTP and supplier would own the fibre network.

As a second option, communities could insist that in return for public subsidy for FTTC, suppliers should give communities fair and non-discriminatory access to cabinets, enabling communities to extend their own fibre network from the cabinet to premises. Communities could choose to go even further by demanding that public money is used to build “Digital Hubs” that would be community owned and run, as is the case in Great Asby.

What would be disadvantages or hidden dangers of these approaches? What would be the costs and benefits of community ownership of “Digital Hubs”? How can we use “Digital Hubs” to meet the ambitions we set out in the Eden Declaration?

If communities are to play a role in shaping this definition, they must join the debate now. As Aileen West noted in the comments, we must break out of the “mindset which we have experienced time and again to the effect that ‘someone’ will be responsible for getting the fast connections we want”.

Communities must decide and do it for themselves. JFDI!