Lancashire was stuck with dial-up until a group of farmers (and a hairdresser) banded together to produce an independent service provider.
By Rick Paulas
Lancashire. (Photo: fitzrovia/Flickr)
Before the Internet came to Lancashire — a farming community in rural Britain — this was what had to happen after every new calf was born: First, they’d be numbered by whomever witnessed the birth, that number would be written down on a piece of paper — say, the back of a cigarette wrapper or an envelope — and then it would be delivered back to the farmhouse. That information would need to be brought to the farm ministry, 20 miles away, within five days. Simple enough, right?
“But you can have two or three calves born every day,” says Christine Conder, who lives in the community. “If you put it off for a day and miss two calves, then you have to cheat and say the calves had just been born, or you lose any means of selling those cows. Then, they have to be slaughtered and burned.”
After a few false starts, things ran smoothly enough, until, as Conder tells it, “some idiot invented YouTube.”
Now that the Internet’s around, all they have to do is get that piece of paper back to their computer, enter it in online, and the work is done. Everyone can get back to their duties without having to worry about cramming in a 40-mile car trip every few days. It’s entirely changed the community. The kids can download their homework, the tractors can more accurately spread fertilizer, and Conder can Skype with me from the comfort of her home.
I contacted Conder because I wanted to know how hard it was to get her Internet connection. She knows because, well, she helped build the town’s Internet herself.
The story starts around 2000, when Internet began its spread through England. Towns were getting lines for ISDN access (essentially, a slightly faster version of dial-up), while larger cities were getting broadband. But the small rural villages were left out, having nothing but standard dial-up access through their phone lines.
“And dial-up is awful,” Conder says. “You can’t do anything with it except get your emails.”
Members of Conder’s community approached nearby Lancaster University’s special projects unit with a proposition: Give them the materials to build a Wi-Fi network, and they would collect data that allowed them to study the bandwidth needs of a family, traffic management, and security problems. “The university was pleased because we were doing all the work, and they were getting all the research,” she says. “We were the white mice.” After a few false starts, things ran smoothly enough, until, as Conder tells it, “some idiot invented YouTube.”
With everyone trying to upload and download videos, stream movies, or play online games, the village’s entire network slowed to a crawl. “We were stuffed,” Conder says. They approached the university, which agreed to upgrade the network at a cost of around 17,000 pounds so long as the residents continued acting as their “white mice.”
But as nearby villages began to learn about the network, they wanted in too, and the university had no incentive to expand. “They had their white mice, they didn’t want to be overridden by white mice,” Conder says. Plus, the residents knew that, because of the high cost of the project, they wouldn’t be able to ride the Wi-Fi gravy train forever. “We knew our days were numbered, that we’d have to pick up the bill once the project was finished.”
So began the project that would come to be known as B4RN (pronounced “Barn”), a truly independent Internet provider for the rural communities of Lancashire.
Using the technology knowledge they amassed during years building and maintaining their own network, the residents developed a business plan for hooking into the country’s fiber system. First, they tried to get funding from the government, but that was a dead end. “Big society, Digital Britain, all the buzzwords,” Conder says. “We tried all the funders, and they all said, it’s OK, [British Telecommunications] is gonna bring super-fast broadband to your area, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. But nobody would help us.”
The residents chose instead to go about it on their own. First, they’d need to raise enough money to cover rent, equipment, and someone to look after the customers. Under the leadership of Barry Forde, a retired professor who is “the brains behind us,” and about 10 other folks from the community, a new collective emerged. On December 15th, 2011, they approached their neighbors with the claim that, if they raised enough money by February 29th, leap day of the following year, they’d start connecting all the villages, including the ones who couldn’t hook into the university’s Wi-Fi signal previously. When deadline day came, they overshot their goal by 100,000 pounds.
The first year was slow-going because of heavy rains: Only 17 customers hooked up by August. “Keeping those customers [on] was the cost of keeping 20,000 customers [on],” Conder says. “We were bleeding money.” But they kept digging and hooking up new customers. When the diggers would reach a new community, farmers would lend their labor and equipment to move the project along faster. By the end of 2013, the project was solvent. Most of the work is still done by volunteers, including Conder, but the company now has 15 paid staff members. The network currently has 2,500 customers, with more coming online every week.
“Barry wants to hit 3,000 by March,” Conder say. “He’s the eternal bloody optimist, is Barry.”
What are the tricks to getting this kind of independent Internet connection? For Conder, it certainly helps if you start with a community that has nothing better to do. “People like you are totally useless to us,” she says to me. “We need people who retired at 55 or 60, have a decent company pension, whose needs aren’t great, and they’re bored!”
But even without that ideal clay from which to build, Conder wants everyone to know that laying down Internet cable is not some overly complex work that can only be accomplished by experts.
“If I can do it with five minutes training, anyone can,” Conder says. “I’m a hairdresser, so I’m used to fiddly things. But fusing fiber is much easier than doing a perm.”