Fiber by the Community


A single English mother, who becomes an author and gains a degree of fame for her inspirational work; Lindsey Annison’s story has striking parallels to J.K. Rowlings. Instead of writing about wizards and magic, Annison tackled the real-world challenges of creating a rural broadband network.

“And the ‘F’ is silent”

She wrote about those challenges in a series of books. In this interview, filmed at the 2012 Broadband Communities Summit, she talks of the process and the motivation for bringing broadband to a rural region of Northern England.

Moving from London to her parent’s rural home in the mid-1990s to raise her twin infants, Annison found a niche in helping companies use the Internet for marketing; a job she could work without needing to live in the high-cost environs of the city.

Working with her community, Annison found a way to bring broadband to the English country side, where the large telecom operator dare not tread. By using community funding, farmers and volunteer labor, B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) is bootstrapping the build-out of a fiber infrastructure that has evolved from a wireless last-mile network.

The people of the community are literally bypassing rights-of-way issues by stringing the fiber over their own land with construction costs of approximately 10% of what it costs the incumbent to build a fiber network. Given that it is an all-volunteer organization, they have a laser-like focus on broadband delivery and decided not to offer their own telephone or video service. As she explains, it would be impossible to provide the quality level that specialized and high-volume Over-the-Top services can provide.

The B4RN project is funded as a community-benefit organization, similar to a cooperative, but one where individuals can invest anywhere between £100 to £20k and receive one vote. With 200 people investing an average of £1,500, it clearly has the support of its rural service territory. At £30 per month ($50), the 1 Gigabit per month service is extremely fast and a great value.

Her story reinforces William Cooper’s commentary regarding a recent House of Lords Communications Committee report on broadband in the United Kingdom. That report was critical of the current goal of ensuring,

“90% of people in every local authority area in the United Kingdom have access to broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second or more by 2015, with all homes and businesses having access to connections of at least 2Mbps.”

According to Cooper, the report suggests a sort of open mid-mile, whereby last-mile entities, such as B4RN, could connect to the Internet. B4RN was fortunate in that they had a nearby meet-point with a fiber network; something not all rural communities have.

Cooper points out that policy-makers should be looking at the bigger picture and how a broadband infrastructure can further social and economic goals. He points out that video is a strong driver for the adoption of broadband:

“Television and video entertainment services are likely to be strong drivers of the adoption of high-speed broadband, drawing along many other public service benefits.”

As such, Cooper argues that terrestrial broadband should be considered as the mechanism for delivering television and radio, freeing up airwaves to provide mobile broadband services.

Clearly, the B4RN network, with its 1 gigabit speeds, is the type of infrastructure required to deliver the services of the future both to rural and urban areas. The story of B4RN and Annison shows the importance of local ownership for the creation of broadband networks in even the most remote of locations. It is a story that policy makers in the U.K and around the world should take note of as they as they draft legislation and promulgate rules to ensure broadband for all.