As more and more companies switch their focus to online products and services, rural communities have found themselves struggling to stay up to speed. Recent data suggests that 860,000 premises in the UK cannot get ‘decent’ broadband and almost two-thirds of premises in rural areas are without the superfast broadband coverage rolling out in cities*.
The impact that this can have on rural communities is well-documented. Warnings have been issued about elderly people in the countryside missing out on vital healthcare technology and small business productivity held back by poor broadband.
With these societal problems in mind, a number of organisations have looked to find a solution and bring broadband to areas that large providers would not. One such pioneering company is Broadband for the Rural North (or B4RN, pronounced barn). Set up in 2011 by a local volunteer group, B4RN currently delivers some of the fastest fibre optic broadband connections in the UK to 5,000 rural homes, businesses and schools in the North West of England and East Anglia.
These B4RN customers are now among just 5% of properties in the UK that have access to full fibre broadband with one gigabit per second capability – at least 30 times faster than superfast broadband**.
But the good work doesn’t stop there. As a registered community benefit society, B4RN’s profits are reinvested back into the community in a variety of ways, for example by providing internet service to primary schools in its network free of charge. It can also never be bought by a commercial operator.
In fact, its community-based approach is the key to its success. B4RN can install cables at a significantly reduced cost by working directly with local residents and rural landowners, gaining access across their land, rather than digging up roads.
Now, working together with Triodos Bank, the company is looking to expand its network and help even more rural communities. It has launched a £3 million bond offer on the bank’s crowdfunding platform, aiming to use the funds to quadruple its network in the next five years.
During B4RN’s early years, initial sites were dug by hand with volunteers excavating trenches, carrying equipment and even supporting by making tea. While community groups and volunteers are still heavily involved in bringing B4RN to new areas, as the organisation has grown the approach has changed and more of the construction is now undertaken by sub-contractors.
“The issue of a lack of decent broadband in rural Britain is an everyday problem for its residents and businesses, and yet it needn’t be,” says Barry Forde, chief executive of B4RN. “We have overcome challenges the large providers were just simply unprepared to take on and by working as a community we have managed to bring the UK’s fastest broadband to some of the UK’s most rural areas.”
“By crowdfunding through Triodos we can connect more and more rural properties, which makes a huge difference to everyone living and working in those communities, and local schools benefit from free broadband."
Dan Hird, head of Corporate Finance at Triodos Bank, added: “We are delighted to be working with B4RN to help them raise the capital they need to expand their vital service. B4RN is an innovative social enterprise demonstrating that a community approach can deliver a state-of-the-art broadband network in rural networks. It is sure to be of interest to investors that would like to support pioneering organisations delivering positive change.”
B4RN’s commitment to affordable, community-focused broadband has led it being recognised by a number of leading bodies and organisations. B4RN was presented with the ‘Internet Hero’ award by the Internet Service Providers’ Association in 2012. By 2015, it received royal recognition with a visit from HRH The Prince of Wales.
Case study: connecting generations
Lesley lives in rural Lancashire. Before joining the B4RN network, her internet connection was erratic at best. The underground cable from the village ended above ground and was strung between poles to reach her house.
With poor mobile phone signal in the area as well, communications were sometimes difficult. Although just half a mile from the village centre, Lesley and her family could not have more than one device connected at once, digital TV options were a non-starter and downloading files, films or music took an age.
Since joining the B4RN connection, the internet connection has dramatically improved, which means that streaming, downloading and general use is now transformed for Lesley.
Lesley’s elderly mother lives in an adjoining lodge that previously had no telephone access. With the B4RN connection, the lodge now has an independent phone line, and with it an emergency call button, which was previously not possible. At 88, Lesley’s mother has also been introduced to Facetime to keep in touch with her great grandchildren.
Broadband for the Rural North Ltd or ‘B4RN’ was launched in December 2011 by a local volunteer group led by industry expert Barry Forde. Registered as a community benefit society with the FSA (under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1965) it can never be bought by a commercial operator and its profits can only be distributed to the community.
Learn more about B4RN’s work here.