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Rural fibre broadband project B4RN aims for Ofcom Code Powers as it connects 600th customer

Grassroots broadband project B4RN wants the freedom to dig up roads so it can accelerate its ultrafast fibre rollout. 

B4RN is already delivering download and upload speeds of 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) to hundreds of homes right now, but it wants to reach thousands over the next two years. 

With the 600th customer recently connected, B4RN says that its now earning enough cash that it can start putting some of its plans into action. 

The Feeding of the 600: B4RN volunteers connecting the latest premises to gigabit broadband
The Feeding of the 600: B4RN volunteers connecting the latest premises to gigabit broadband

Developed and deployed entirely by local residents, B4RN charges just £30/month for its symmetrical gigabit broadband service, a price that’s not too far off what you’d pay the likes of TalkTalk, BT and Sky for an FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet) service that will give you download speeds of up to 76Mbps, if you’re lucky.  

Now it’s got some pocket money, B4RN is looking into purchasing Code Powers from telecoms regulator Ofcom. Code Powers – also currently being sought by Sky – will give B4RN freedom to connect new customers without needing to apply to the local authority (Lancashire County Council) for specific licences. 

Prior to the 600th customer being connected, committee member Christine Conder told Recombu: “There are around 40 new customers awaiting connection. They are waiting because we await permission from the county council for road crossings. 

“We can receive Code Powers as soon as we can spare the money. It’s just that our money is needed more for ducting than for paperwork. B4RN is making leaps and bounds already but Code Powers are one of the luxuries that would make our job easier.” 

Pending permission from the council, B4RN wasted no time laying fibre in core ducts elsewhere, ready to connect the homes as soon as the official go-ahead was received. 

As well as snapping up Code Powers, B4RN wants to employ some full time staff. Right now, all technical support, maintenance and construction is undertaken by volunteers – B4RN wants to employ people to do this for a living. 

Christopher Carr, local champion for B4RN in the village of Aughton (pronounced ‘Aff-ton’), told us that the project has galvanised local interest and expects that staff will be drawn from the ranks of local volunteers. 

Carr said: “There’s been a real cohesive aspect to this project. Volunteers have got to know people they might not have otherwise met – and they say the Internet is about communication. 

“Villages are coming in to the orbit of B4RN all the time. As well as expanding the network, this will enable B4RN to develop a permanent team of engineers.”

‘Born-again mole ploughers’

The Aughton leg of the project started in February this year and was completed in August. The work might not have connected a huge number of people in Aughton, where there’s 20 houses, but a side effect of the work is that is created a link to the village of Halton, located 2.5 miles away. 

Carr says that the B4RN’s localised rollouts have a domino effect. When people from nearby towns and villages hear of gigabit broadband arriving in places which historically have struggled to get anything above 1Mbps, people roll up their sleeves.  

“Volunteers from outside the village have contributed to Aughton. We’ve had people coming up for the weekend working on the ducting,” says Carr, who enthusiastically talked about ‘born-again mole ploughers.’

A mole plough is a simple ploughing device, a vertical pipe that sticks 20 inches into the ground. Mole ploughs don’t get much use outside draining land and laying water pipes, but as it happens they’re ideal for digging trenches for fibre ducts.

“I had this vision of farmers dusting off these ancient ploughs and putting them to good use again,” laughs Carr. 

Whether trenches are being dug with mole ploughs or excavators, the knock-on effect B4RN has created is undeniable. 

B4YS, a sister project, sprung up in Yealand, Storth and Silverdale – Lancashire villages to the north of B4RN’s main network – earlier this year

As for where B4RN is heading next, Conder says B4RN will go beyond its native Lancashire, but adds that local demand is driving interest. 

“We are heading to the hinterlands of Tatham parish at the moment, also heading towards Low Bentham, we hit Yorkshire this week. 

“We’re heading into Whittington, and that’s Cumbria. We’re almost at Halton and approaching Hornby, Farleton and Claughton. Those communities are digging to meet us. It’s amazing.” 

B4RN plans to have at least 1,000 properties connected to gigabit broadband by summer 2015, but as more communities come on board, 3,000 customers could have joined up by the end of the year. 

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