Are you well connected?

I don’t mean in terms of social circles, I wouldn’t presume. But in terms of line speed for your smart phone and computer?

The answer is that it depends in large part where you live. Urban concentrations, big cities are milliseconds faster. Coastal villages or rural market towns can be a go-make-a-cup-of-tea slower.

Rolling out fibre networks, the key to high speed broadband, is something that is national policy, but to date it has been dominated by private companies who want to control as much of the infrastructure as they can – and then charge the rents that any good monopoly can extract. Openreach, the network activity formerly known as BT, can act as a wholesale operator, which can then be used by an Internet Service Provider (ISP). But they make the same basic offer when it comes to extending broadband – you pay and we will own.

Set up in 2011 by a technology specialist, Barry Forde, with colleagues, B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) is a co-operative alternative. Now with twelve hundred members, it has connected around four thousand rural properties with high quality broadband (1,000Mbps FTTH) at a cost of only £30 per month. As one industry observer told me, admiringly, their model succeeds in leveraging community engagement in a way that dramatically decreases costs. 

The idea of developing infrastructure in a co-operative form has been an extraordinary success in the USA over time, both with telephone lines and with rural electricity networks:

  • Rural electricity co-ops employ around 58,000 people in the USA, operating on a non-profit basis. Their story is told in this short video from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which brings together 900 enterprises.

One of the leading national initiatives in the UK that has drawn on the US story, shaped by Malcolm Corbett and colleagues, is the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA). INCA has been remarkably successful in recent years, shaping national policy and carving out space for its 120 plus business members, including B4RN, which are independent network operators.

“Together, the independents form the UK’s third digital infrastructure competitor, alongside BT and Virgin” explains Malcolm.

INCA has also proven again the worth of the approach, which is that if you are dealing with a natural monopoly, then the benefit of the co-operative model is that it offers a way of ensuring voice and fair practice by enfranchising those who depend on the monopoly. If the problematic monopoly provider Openreach had been converted ten years ago to a co-operative of network operators, Britain would arguably be far further ahead in terms of world-class, ‘gigabit-capable’ internet speeds right across the UK, for better connectivity and faster downloads.

This is the infrastructure that Britain now needs for economic development. It used to be the case that towns and cities flocked to build business parks, to serve and attract business to an area. Now, land is expensive and more useful anyway for housing. It is more digital infrastructure that new businesses need, not more business parks.

But how can this be done? In market towns or rural areas, there is a need to join key groups together – it may be hospitals or town halls or housing associations that would benefit from the latest digital infrastructure (and increasingly healthcare and wider public services will need that anyway). But acting alone is uncoordinated and contracting to a company creates cost and dependency. Under EU State Aid rules, anyway, public money should not be benefiting private firms by giving them control of the infrastructure. When Amsterdam upgraded its city networks to shiny new and fast, it had to separate out the network into three levels, each reflecting a different layer of technology (and scope for commercial value): passive, active and service level.

Well, the answer could be co-operative.

Working together to build infrastructure at lower cost is the logic behind a new co-operative I visited in Aston-under-Lyne, at the invitation of the serial digital co-operative entrepreneur Shaun Fensom. This is the Tameside Digital Infrastructure Co-operative, which is successfully rolling out fibre in the area.

The co-operative allows all the different players to pool access to their properties without handing over the keys of ownership. It is, says Shaun, “a thin layer mutual.”

This allows for the re-use of public assets and extends fibre access, open to all. It solves the subsidy question as it avoids giving any state aid. It cuts out the costs and waste of competing private networks, by promoting collaboration at the ‘passive’ level, leaving competition to work at the ‘active’ and ‘service’ levels: whether they are national telecoms names or indeed local providers.

The Tameside Co-op model, chaired by Tim Rainey, has been recognised as an innovation by national Government, and late last year an event took place in Federation, the digital hub in Manchester across from our own home, to promote and test the model more widely.

Praise for the Tameside Co-op from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport at an event at Federation, Manchester

I met with the co-op in the stunning venue of the Ashton Old Baths, a listed heritage beauty that has been lovingly converted into digital enterprise incubator.

A number of other parts of the country are exploring whether to join in, from major city regions and coastal towns in the North to rolling rural hills in the South. This can only grow. It is, one would think a natural, for localities that are part of the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network.

Of course, it is still early days. Should there be a national programme and a common co-op to join or a spread of local co-ops?

But the idea that we can go faster, by connecting together… is taking root.

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