Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It Takes a Village to Build a Network

They do things differently on the other side of the pond. Our own consciousness industry tends to promote the proposition that the British are quaint, naive, and out of touch with the latest thinking, particularly where matters of business and technology are concerned. Every now and then, however, those of us who follow the news beyond the boundaries of our own home-made propaganda discover that human values still count for something in the United Kingdom and that there can be a place for those values in the world of modern technology.

Consider the following dispatch to BBC News from Graham Satchell concerning the vision of an entire nation wired for broadband:

A UK village which raised £37,000 to offer 200 homes the super-fast broadband that BT could not deliver has launched its network.

Rutland Telecom will offer the residents of Lyddington speeds of up to 40Mbps (megabits per second).

Other telecom firms had said it was not economical to provide fast services to the village.

Getting fast broadband to rural areas is back in the spotlight as the government shelves its funding plans.

It is estimated that around 2.5 million homes in the UK cannot get broadband speeds of more than 2Mbps.

The Rutland Telecom scheme was a joint effort between villagers fed up with slow broadband speeds and a local ICT firm that was reselling BT's broadband.

Street cabinet

They discovered that there was nothing to stop them becoming a telco.

"We found that any company could do, on a smaller scale, what Carphone Warehouse has done and take over BT's network," said Dr David Lewis, managing director of Rutland Telecom.

They asked Openreach, the BT spin-off that has responsibility for the UK's telephone network, to supply fibre-optic cable to a street cabinet in the village.

It was a slow process and required the intervention of regulator Ofcom but two years later the telco is up and running and already has 50 customers.

"For the first time in UK telecommunications history the telephone lines of customers are completely cut off from the local BT exchange," said Rutland Telecom director Mark Melluish.

The good news is that this is a first rate little-village-that-could story. It offers a moral with a twist: If the giants who think they are running the show think you are too insignificant, find someone else who doesn't. This follows the same line of reasoning that advocates doing business with a small local bank, rather than one of those behemoths that is more interested in inventing new schemes for wealth creation beyond the scope of current regulations. Ironically enough, this village may have stumbled upon its own approach to wealth creation as a consulting "solutions provider" to other villages:

Rutland Telecom has been approached by 40 other rural community groups to see if a similar solution is possible in their area.

It is on the verge of launching similar schemes in neighbouring Leicestershire and one in Wales.

Nevertheless, in the interest of maintaining that sense of reality by which I try to live, I feel a few cautionary observations are in order. Rutland is still connected to BT. It is just that they are now connected through a mediating enterprise. This raises the question of how fee-for-service will fare in the future. If BT raises their rates, that hike will trickle down to the mediator, which is unlikely either to absorb or to mollify the increase. Any effort on Rutland's part to push back is likely to be regarded as insignificant to BT.

There is also the matter of cost. £37,000 doesn't sound like a sum that can be raised through a bake sale or a booth at the county fair, and I doubt that it could have been easily managed by Rutland's budget. Did Rutland find a good price point to charge for the service; and, if so, do they have a good projection for when they will recoup the expense (including any additional expenses if the money had to be provided through a loan or bond measure)? Knowing how many Americans feel about taxes, my guess is that the answer to this second question could well be a deal-killer for anyone trying to apply a similar strategy in this country!

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