Eden’s Broadband Champions meet with BDUK

12:35 in guest post by Libby Bateman

On 16 December, Libby Bateman, UECP project officer and Broadband Champion for Ravenstonedale, convened a meeting between Mike Kiely of BDUK and Broadband Champions from across the Eden valley. Here, she blogs about her experience as a longstanding broadband campaigner and her perspective on the latest developments in the campaign:

Meeting of Broadband Champions at Kirby Stephen, 16 December 2010. Photographer: Lance Greenhalgh

Yesterday, I walked through the snow with a young friend of mine to her home halfway up the Uldale Valley. She is one of three children in their late teens and early 20s and I feel like I am letting her down when I say: “it may be another twelve months before we can get broadband to your home”.  She has now been unable to drive her car for three weeks because of the snow. She has been completely isolated from the outside world with no broadband, a very unreliable landline, and no mobile signal.

Six months ago, it was very simple: we were going to dig in the fibre, plug it in, and switch it on. Our problems were: which route do we take? And how do we make it affordable?

Then, along came the Big Society, which seemed to be purpose-made to help us in what we were trying to achieve, and along came some money from BDUK - another real bonus.

But the result of these two strokes of luck has been delay. Instead of bashing on and building our networks, we now have to wait for the powers-that-be to catch up. The BDUK funding and the resulting government procurement have slowed things down. But, however frustrating this may be, we can’t rush the process: it’s essential that they get it right first time.

To quote a good friend, this is where the Big Society and Big Government come crashing into each other. But remember, we are the Big Society Vanguard, which means that the government is hoping to learn from us how it can work better with communities. And so, yes, we may well go bump a few times, but isn’t that part of any learning process?

Now, my intention is to ensure that, in twelve months time, we really do deliver broadband to the top of the Uldale Valley and that we don’t just get faster broadband to major population centres to satisfy government statisticians.

So, when Mike Kiely from BDUK said ‘I would like to come and see you’, I leapt at the opportunity. It was a chance for our Broadband Champions to have direct input in to the procurement.  Now I don’t profess to have much of a clue about the process - I have picked up bits of information here and there - but generally I find the whole thing very complicated.

At the meeting on Thursday night, some broadband champions suggested that they wished to set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) and build their own networks, with the BDUK money being used to provide decent and affordable backhaul for their networks.

But I wonder whether we really have the skills in our communities to manage such a CIC, which would be subject to the same rules and regulations as any telecommunications company as defined by Ofcom? And even if some our communities do have these skills now, will they have them in the future?  I wholeheartedly agree with a comment, which was made at the meeting that, if we are to build a community network, then it needs to be defined to a standard that would enable it to be taken over by another company at a later date.

So, thank you to all of you who came on Thursday night and, not least, to Mike Kiely for listening to us.  We all have a lot of work to do, and this was never going to be an easy ride. If it was, somebody else would have done it years ago!

Also, it turns out that my original two questions still stand: ‘which route do we take? And how do we make it affordable?’ But the great thing is that BDUK is now asking them - it’s not just me - and that has to be progress. So, keep trucking guys, we are getting there!