As part of my research, I have recently had an exciting trip to Melling. I suspect most of you do not know this tiny village in rural Lancashire. Neither did I, before discovering Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN).
For those who do not know B4RN, I would suggest to have a look here and here. To put it simply, it is a community project providing ultrafast broadband to connect remote and super-rural villages in the North West of England. Since 2011, people from the local communities teamed up to dig their own network. When I say dig, yes, I mean that! Volunteers are digging the ducts and posing the fibre – rather than just waiting for telcos or public authorities to do it.
Along with the physical roll-out, B4RN runs the ‘Come and Get IT Club’. Every Friday, people are welcome in their office in Melling to seek assistance with routers and tablets over a cup of tea. In a very friendly and passionate environment, anyone can learn the steps to set up a Vonage account or the tricks to boost the wi-fi signal indoor.
One Friday afternoon I joined the Club in Melling and it was one of the most fascinating experience of my researcher’s career. There is no better way to research such projects than being part of it for few hours. Therefore, I immersed myself in B4RN’s world for one day…. and I learn a lot, indeed. Now I can even self-install a fibre termination into my house – I just need to wait for B4RN to come to Newcastle.
Most importantly, I had the chance to directly experience what communities can achieve when people share their expertise to pursue a communal goal. Listening to the stories of volunteers, employees and customers, I just realised that initiatives like B4RN can really empower local communities, by providing a faster connection and getting people actively involved in the digital revolution.
In the early 2000s, many communities wireless networks were established and scholars viewed those projects as an opportunity to promote both digital inclusion and socio-economic development. Unfortunately, only few of those initiatives have survived to the impediments of wi-fi technology and the difficulties of cooperative projects. However, B4RN proves that community-led networks still have a lot to say and to do. Policymakers and practitioners should carefully listen to such initiatives and learn some lessons.
First, innovative business models can make a difference and challenge our common sense of broadband investment.
Second, people are the most powerful asset when their potential is acknowledged and their contribution is valued.
Third, broadband is definitely not a luxury good for techies and urban elites. Anyone can get the most out of it, when provided with a decent connection and practical skills.
It may be too early to evaluate the long-term impact of B4RN. Nevertheless, this project is forcing policymakers, practitioners and researchers to rethink the dynamics in broadband market and consider alternative approaches to infrastructure delivery. Its implications might go beyond the diffusion of digital services and inspire a new model for social inclusion and economic development.
No need to say that I am excited and proud to research it!