Cybermoor, a community owned co-operative in Alston, Cumbria, is building its own superfast broadband network using fibre technology, and in doing so is creating a pioneering model for others to follow.
Cybermoor, a member of Co-operativesUK, was one of the first community broadband projects in the UK and the new initiative - Alston Fibremoor - is aiming to make Alston one of the first villages in the UK to offer 'fibre to the home'. A fibre based network offers faster, more reliable, connections.
The co-operative will be laying the cable and the network will be owned by the community rather than a corporate business. Digging will start in April 2009.
Daniel Heery, founder of Cybermoor and one of England's Social Enterprise Ambassadors, says: 'Community ownership can deliver high speed broadband in rural areas at a fraction of the cost charged by big operators.
'In addition, we are using local contractors, managing them effectively so the money goes straight into the local economy not back through tiers of management and into shareholders pockets.
'Another key benefit of the project is that the co-operative approach builds new skills and capacity in rural communities, while making the most of existing social capital.'
The Cumbrian parish of Alston Moor is one of the most sparsely populated areas of England and was deemed non-viable when first generation broadband was being deployed by BT. This decision precipitated the creation of Cybermoor.
However, accessibility and speed with existing broadband networks still remain a problem in rural areas. A recent study by Ofcom confirmed that urban consumers receive average download speeds 15% faster than their rural counterparts.
In his New Year strategy, Gordon Brown outlined how investment in digital infrastructure can help stimulate the economy. However, current plans for superfast broadband from BT and Virgin Media confirm that only half the UK's households will be covered. This means rural areas are likely to miss out.
Dr Stuart Burgess, the Government's Rural Advocate and Chair of the Commission for Rural Communities, visited Alston recently to find out more about the Fibremoor project.
Stuart Burgess said: 'The future of broadband in rural communities is a serious issue. Ensuring they are not left out of plans for future generation broadband is critical. There are also important economic factors at play - for example, farmers will have little incentive to redevelop redundant buildings, for offices, retail or leisure use, if suitable broadband isn't available.
'I am extremely excited by the prospects for Alston Fibremoor. I look forward to hearing and seeing in detail just what can be achieved through the use of new technology to deliver superfast broadband. Local community leadership in upgrading existing services can also be used as an inspiration to other broadband co-operatives around the country.'
Dr Burgess's visit to Alston follows the publication of the Communications Consumer Panel's latest report, Local initiatives on next generation access in the UK. The study mapped an extensive and growing network of community-led superfast broadband schemes, with pilots across the UK from Ashford in Kent and Kings Lynn in East Anglia, to the Scottish Highlands.
'There are around 40 local broadband schemes,' explains Roger Darlington, the report's author and panel member. 'This is not necessarily a comprehensive review, but will certainly surprise many.'
The Government's Digital Britain: The Interim Report, published on 29 January, outlines plans for the UK's digital transition, with more than 20 recommendations, including specific proposals on next generation networks and universal access to broadband.
One of the report's actions is for the Government to help implement the Community Broadband Network's proposals for an umbrella body to bring together all the local and community networks and provide them with technical and advisory support. Community Broadband Network is a member of Co-operativesUK.
Community Broadband Network is working with a range of groups across the UK with a varying degree of regional development agency and local government support. This includes Cybermoor, and West Whitlawburn Housing Co-operative (WWHC), a progressive social housing provider on the outskirts of Glasgow.
WWHC is embarking on a project to build a further 100 new homes alongside their existing flats, and has appointed the Community Broadband Network to design and deliver a superfast broadband solution for its new homes, with the aim of extending it to existing homes soon after the building work is complete.
WWHC set up a new co-operative, Whitcomm, to organise the services. The fibre installation is a comparatively small percentage of the overall new build costs, funded by a mix of public and private financing. The first fibre connections go live in February 2009.