A fast and reliable broadband connection is essential for businesses but for many in Cumbria it’s still an aspiration rather than a reality.
The Connecting Cumbria project, run by Cumbria County Council in partnership with BT, has had a degree of success.
Its initial aim was to ensure universal coverage at 2Mbs – which is way to slow for data-heavy applications – and it is now rolling out ‘superfast’ broadband, defined as a connection speed of at least 24 Mbps.
Around 126,000 homes and businesses in Cumbria have access to superfast, approximately half the total. But even where it is available, up to 10% of premises aren’t able to achieve download speeds of 24 Mbps.
Astonishingly, a handful of communities in rural South East Cumbria enjoy broadband connections that the rest of the county can only dream of.
The likes of Barbon, Casterton, Hincaster and Dent in South Lakeland have access to ‘hyperfast’ connections of 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps) thanks to Broadband for the Rural North – B4RN for short – a remarkable self-help initiative.
It isn’t the only community broadband initiative operating in Cumbria – others include Fellnet and Dufton Digital in the Eden Valley, and Cybermoor in Alston – but B4RN claims to deliver “the world’s fastest rural broadband”.
The model is simple. Local communities buy shares in B4RN to raise capital to bring in fibre-optic broadband with the co-operation of local landowners.
To keep costs to a minimum, volunteers dig trenches to carry the cables.
Subscribers pay £150 for a connection and then a monthly service fee of only £30 for households and businesses with up to five employees, £60 for business with between six and 15 staff, and £150 for larger businesses.
B4RN, which is registered as a community benefit society, launched in Quernmore, near Lancaster, in 2011, and has grown steadily.
It has raised £4.8m in shares and loans, employs 21 staff, and now has more than 1,200 shareholders and 3,270 connected properties in North Lancashire, South Cumbria and neighbouring North Yorkshire.
Two-thirds of properties in the areas it covers take up the option of a connection. There is no requirement to buy shares to become a customer.
Volunteer Chris Conder one of the founder members.
She believes that B4RN can be a model for Cumbria – and other rural areas – and is dismissive of Connecting Cumbria’s approach as lacking in ambition.
“They call it superfast broadband but it’s not true fibre,” she said.
“It’s fibre broadband to the cabinet then the connection to your home or business is through copper telephone wires.
“We use fibre right into the property, which is why it’s faster.”
She continued: “This isn’t rocket science. The materials themselves are relatively cheap. If people dig the trenches themselves you haven’t got the massive costs for civil engineering works that Openreach charge.
“You need to have 1,000 customers for the project to be sustainable and with 3,000 customers you start to make a nice profit to return to shareholders. The whole community has to be behind it or it won’t work.”
B4RN runs occasional ‘Show Tell’ days ear to show interested parties how its model work. The word is spreading – other B4RN groups have started in East Anglia, Cheshire and Surrey.
Levens, near Milnthorpe, is the latest Cumbrian community to embrace B4RN. Villagers have raised £110,000 to bring in fibre from nearby Hincaster.
“Hyperfast broadband is vital for business,” Chris added. “We offer 1,000 Mbps download and upload speeds. You need that if you’re uploading videos.”
Rob Johnston, Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, is encouraged by the potential of B4RN.
He said: “When we ask businesses about barriers to growth, inadequate broadband comes up time and again, and not just in rural areas.
“The exciting thing about B4RN is that it offers a world-class service at modest cost. It could be the solution for many communities.”
He continued: “Speaking at our recent partners’ dinner with South Lakeland Council, Andrew Atherton, Professor of Enterprise at Lancaster University, pointed out that there is an opportunity for Cumbria to attract service businesses driven out of London by congestion and the high costs of operating in the capital.
“We can offer them a high quality natural environment and a much lower cost base than London. If we can add hyperfast broadband to the mix, then it becomes a compelling offer.”
Slow broadband isn’t the only communications issue facing rural Cumbria.
Gaps in mobile phone coverage – so called not spots – are a problem too, which is why Cumbria Chamber is backing the British Chambers of Commerce’s #ShareYourNotSpots campaign.
This aims to identify specific areas where mobile coverage is inadequate, then lobby the mobile phone networks to solve the problem.
You can report not spots, and areas of partial not spots, by clicking here. It takes only 30 seconds or so.
© Cumbria Chamber of Commerce