Plucky rural UK ISP B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North), which is deploying a community built and funded 1Gbps Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) broadband network to remote premises in several counties across England, expects to achieve 6,000 live connections by the end of June and has raised £2m via crowdfunding.
The provider, which has been busy digging away since 2012 and is registered as a community benefit society (i.e. it can’t be bought by a commercial operator and their profits are distributed back into the community), has so far deployed well over 3,000km of fibre optic cable across remote rural parts of Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Yorkshire.
The majority of their network to date has been funded by communities investing over £5m in shares in the company and many of those have done this as part of helping to physically build the infrastructure. This tends to generate high levels of take-up in a very short space of time (65% was the last average we saw), not least because people feel a strong connection to things they’ve helped to build.
Admittedly the project did suffer somewhat of a setback recently after the HM Treasury suddenly removed their tax breaks following changes to the Enterprise Investment Scheme (here), but this does not appear to have dampened their progress. The provider will soon have gone from 5,000 live rural “full fibre” connections (customers) at the end of September 2018 to nearly 6,000 in the space of around 9 months.
On top of that they’ve been busy making good use of the Government’s £67m business connectivity orientated Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme (GBVS). So far they’ve applied for and been issued with about 900 vouchers with a value of about £1.4m and have claimed £626K worth of those to help drive their network forward. Indeed there’s a pipeline of more than 10,000 properties (potential vouchers amount to over £9m) that may soon follow.
The Government’s newly launched £200m Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme, which offers even bigger vouchers worth up to £3,500 for small businesses and up to £1,500 for residents (in many cases this will cover 100% of B4RN’s build cost), is expected to deliver an even bigger boost to the operator. In theory we may eventually see B4RN harnessing this to reach 20,000 premises (live customers) over the next few years.
Barry Forde (pictured), CEO of B4RN, said:
“We expect to ramp up our rate of voucher registration considerably over the coming months. You are probably aware that we have also been taking on staff and this is to enable us to ramp up the rate of build. We are targeting 500 per month but it will take us about 6-9 months to reach that build rate. Last month we did 165 connections and I think we will get close to that this month too.
We should hit 6000 live customers by the end of June but we want to add that number again in each of the next two years whilst the DCMS funding is available.”
However Barry does acknowledge that the voucher approach, while extremely beneficial, still comes attached to a few significant challenges. The operator has to quickly ramp-up its operations in order to take full advantage of all this, not least because if they don’t then the scheme(s) will end up expiring before they’re able to complete all of the proposed deployments.
The challenge in all of this is that building “full fibre” networks remains an inherently slow process, particularly when dealing with community focused efforts and organising volunteers. On top of that many of their builds require the vouchers to be aggregated and that means B4RN has to get lots of Aggregated Pre Registered Packages (APRP) approved, usually before they can even start encouraging communities to sign-up for vouchers.
Apparently it can sometimes take several months to go through the APRP process, plus a few more to get vouchers sorted and they’re then only valid for 12 months (an extension is possible if the supplier encounters unforeseen difficulties but ISPs would rather not test that). Suffice to say, anybody who builds FTTP/H knows just how tight this sort of timescale is and that’s true even for bigger providers.
The other challenge is that the vouchers only get paid AFTER the property is connected and live, which of course leaves B4RN to gap fund the build cost until then. This is where their recent crowdfunding raise via Triodos Bank (here) comes into play, which has just hit £2m (enough to get going) and Barry suggests that further investors are expected to take advantage (hence why the raise has been extended until the end of Spring).
“We are in a different world to the one we used to inhabit, it’s no longer a question of money but instead it’s about delivery,” said Barry to ISPreview.co.uk. Meanwhile customers benefit from one of both the cheapest and fastest broadband connections in the UK. Subscribers pay just £30 inc. VAT per month for a 1000Mbps (symmetrical) unlimited service and there’s also a one-off connection fee of £150.
Admittedly B4RN’s model works best in rural “soft dig” areas, where you don’t have to worry about the tighter restrictions and higher costs that can occur in more urban locations due to the need to dig up streets etc. However, they have had to do a bit of that too in some of the more “urban” villages, such as Halton (Halton-with-Aughton) in Lancashire, and we may see more as time goes on. Keep it up.