Katharine Harborne is Chairman of the Oxford Business Club and a former Conservative councillor
When I first went online it was 1984 and the first thing I tried to do with my 2.4 baud rate dial-up modem was download a picture of the then Secretary of State for Defence; Michael Heseltine. (Well, I was young, and … )
It took several hours for the download to complete and when I opened it, it looked like a knitting pattern. I never did see that picture and it was weeks before I tried to ‘surf the net’ again. (Younger readers will have no idea what I’m talking about having never encountered uuencoded ASCII text.)
30 years later I lost my internet service for a day and struggled to survive. It’s like spraining a thumb: you don’t realise how much you do with your hands until you sprain your thumb, and I was massively disabled without broadband.
One third of Oxfordshire (where I have ambitions to be a prospective parliamentary candidate next May) has been cabled by British Telecom. Another third of Oxford is going to be cabled by British Telecom at some point thanks, in part, to generous Government financial support. That leaves one third of Oxfordshire that is going to be left unconnected because BT’s business model doesn’t work in rural communities.
Can you imagine Oxfordshire, home of one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions, and many of the coolest high tech businesses, with plans to grow start-up enterprises and create the most dynamic working environments in the world – abandoning a third of its territory to the modern equivalent of the Dark Ages – the dial-up modem – just because it doesn’t satisfy some corporate objectives?
Well, that’s exactly what is happening.
Rural communities all over the country suffer a similar fate; but in the rural North West, people are doing something about it. B4RN (Broadband 4 the Rural North) is a community enterprise (not-for-profit) which is reaching the parts – the Lune Valley and Trough of Bowland – that other telecom companies will not reach. They raise their own finance, dig their own trenches, blow their own fibres and connect their own homes to a superfast, future-proof cable network. With speeds in excess of 700Mbps (BT’s best is 300Mbps) they could download pictures of the entire Cabinet in seconds.
Could the B4RN model be used for B4RO(xfordshire)? I don’t see any reason why not. But B4RN hasn’t just given the residents of the Forest of Bowland a better internet connection than MPs have in the House of Commons. Many of them have derived a sense of community power from having been able to club together and muck-in (often literally) and achieve a solid and positive outcome for themselves and their neighbours in the face of corporate neglect.
B4RN is a superb example of a community coming together and producing a result it was never going to get if it relied on ‘The Powers That Be’ to do it for them. It’s a model worth studying and adopting elsewhere; not least in rural Oxfordshire.