XXIII.1 January + February 2016
Page: 36
Digital Citation

Six factors for success in community broadband initiatives

Claire Wallace, Kathryn Vincent

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The U.K. government aims to extend "superfast" broadband connections of at least 24 mbps to 95 percent of premises by 2017 as part of its Broadband Delivery U.K. strategy (https://www.gov.uk/broadband-delivery-uk). However, this still leaves many communities with inadequate or no broadband connectivity until then, and the problem of providing for the remaining 5 percent in the future is unresolved. This is especially the case in rural communities and sparsely populated areas, such as those found in many parts of Scotland. The lack of technological infrastructure can inhibit the economic and social sustainability of those places as they get left further behind in the information economy. Some communities have taken matters into their own hands by setting up their own broadband infrastructure. Here we look at four case studies over the past decade in which communities in the U.K. have set up broadband. We then identify six factors for success.

Peninsula Village: From private company to co-operative. In Peninsula Village, a local woman who worked for the regional council as a technology information expert set up an Internet company in the early 1990s. She realized the upcoming technology would be crucial for redeveloping rural areas but was frustrated by the failure of the local authorities to provide these services. She and her husband mortgaged their home in order to start a company, becoming one of the first Internet service providers, first nationally and later internationally, which also facilitated her consultancy activities. Although Peninsula Village is remote, it was conveniently situated near telephone exchanges that enabled these services to be provided cheaply and efficiently. Later, as technology improved, they replaced this infrastructure with a fiber-optic line, which they financed and had laid to their business premises. The company was later sold and the couple moved away, but the business continues to be successful, enabling a second business of hosting websites.

As a result of these pioneering activities, the village became a wired community with a project for supplying experimental Wi-Fi transmitted from the roofs of houses. While the original aim was a for-profit venture, there was substantial spillover into local social and community activities, creating one of the most active community information websites in the region and helping to further develop non-profit services. The business was enmeshed in community relationships, with a mission to provide services where government had failed.

Uplands Village: From co-operative to private company. The Uplands Village community broadband initiative started in 2001 as part of the U.K. government's Wired-up Communities project to help people get online and access public services. It ran an Internet drop-in center, providing training and support, and set people up with computers in their homes. The project was administered by the Rural Community Council and led by a local man who had formerly been the E.U. LEADER (Liaison Entre Actions de Développement de l'Économie Rurale) officer for that area. In 2003 the venture was set up as a not-for-profit organization. Then, in 2009, the community broadband organization decided that fiber would be key to providing high-quality broadband service in the future and began laying a fiber backbone around the town, with outlying villages using local farmers and volunteer labor to dig trenches and lay the cable. In 2012 they began facia-mounting fiber around the center of Uplands Village, which involved negotiating wayleaves over more than 300 properties. All except two granted permission to do this free of charge. The community broadband organization also has a pool of other regular, mainly local, workers employed on more of an ad hoc basis, but when these workers were unable to cope with the demand in 2014, the organization contracted a commercial company to provide the broadband services. However, the community enterprise still owns the cable itself. It is funded through a patchwork of resources, predominantly from public bodies, but also through earned income and a community share offer. The public funding has come from many sources: E.U., U.K. government, local government, National Health Service, and universities. The organization in charge of the project works closely with the local government, including sharing offices with them, but they remain an independent organization. They are able to recuperate their running costs through a relatively low-cost subscription model, which even those on welfare can afford, since many living in Uplands are on low incomes or welfare.

Island Village: Part of a regional social enterprise. Another example of a co-operative is Island Village, where leadership was provided by the Community Development Officer, who is part of the Island Trust, and funding came from the regional development authority and E.U. LEADER funds. Originally dissatisfied with the quality of satellite broadband, the community leaders joined up with other small islands and regional remote populations to develop a broadband network based upon backhaul to the local university. The development officer, together with some helpers, set up a radio mast on a headland to receive the radio signals and then connected these to the village through a buried cable. The signal was then relayed around the village through transmitters on people's homes. Funding for the project came from the E.U.-financed LEADER project, the funds of the Island Trust, and a local charity. Subscription prices are kept low, reflecting the generally very low incomes of people in the region. This has enabled local businesses to advertise their services and attract customers as well as bookings. The Island Trust owns rental properties and a deer-stalking operation, so they have also benefited from this facility. However, it did not result in a community information network, as in Peninsula Village; offline communications were provided by the pub, post office, café, and paper newsletter. Most of the work was done by islanders erecting their own masts and climbing up on buildings to affix transmitters.

Incomers were often unhappy with the local technology infrastructure or were keen to work from home as part of their professional careers.

Commuter Village: A social enterprise but for how long? Another not-for-profit legal entity that enables raising resources through subscriptions and the channeling of external funding is the social enterprise. Until recently, the villagers' only option for broadband was through BT, at very slow rates. A new resident felt it was difficult to live without high-quality broadband, specifically due to his need to work from home. When speaking to neighbors he realized he was not alone—a number of other locals needed broadband for the same reason and also for communicating with family abroad, and children needed it for homework (at the time, they had to go into a nearby town to complete their work). He organized a series of meetings in the nearby pub to see if there was enough interest to put in an application for funding. Once there were enough people willing to subscribe to the service, the community entrepreneur applied for and won a number of government grants that he used to construct the initial infrastructure. In the nearby city, he paid to have a cable laid from a main juncture to a disused radio antenna, using a professional contractor to lay the cables and set up the Ethernet. The signal is beamed from this antenna to a receiver on the outside of the village, then re-beamed to a number of repeaters around the village. Customers had to pay to have microwave receivers installed on their houses, and then pay a monthly fee to receive one of two levels of broadband. There were three bands of subscription, and although services operated at up to 100 mbps, allowing streaming of audiovisual material and Internet TV, the subscriptions were fairly costly for the highest band; lower bands provided lesser services. This reflected the fact that this was generally an affluent community. The service has been slowly moving out from the initial receivers as more members of the network come online and bounce the signal on to neighbors. Recently, the project has taken on a full-time staff member, but a majority of the work was previously done either by the original entrepreneur, a few volunteers, or paid contractors.

back to top  Factors for Success

Although very different initiatives in very different communities ranging between high, middle, and low income, these successful broadband initiatives did have certain things in common. First, each depended upon leadership in the form of one or more community entrepreneurs. In the case of Peninsula Village, it took the form of a private company. In Commuter Village a private individual set up the social enterprise; in Uplands Village it was a social entrepreneur who lived locally and had worked on Uplands Village's LEADER program. In Island Village the local development officer was active in working with neighboring communities to set up the digital connections. However, a single entrepreneur is not sufficient for successful community mobilization. All the community entrepreneurs were able to mobilize local networks and were respected members of their communities with strong human and social capital. They represented an ideal of community leadership.

Successful projects depend upon human capital. All these areas had substantial populations of well-educated people, partly reflecting the gentrification of rural neighborhoods over a period of decades. These incomers were often unhappy with the local technology infrastructure or were keen to work from home as part of their professional careers. They brought with them external social capital as well as new skills and expectations.

A third factor was that of technological capital, because someone must know how to set up these networks and link them to other media. In the case of Uplands Village, the initiator had previously worked as a telecom engineer. In other cases it was the proximity or link to people from local universities who provided the expertise or the funding or both for these local broadband initiatives. In the case of Peninsula Village it was the expertise of an IT advisor; in Island Village a retired professor of computer science initiated a university project that helped set up the network, and the initial broadband was provided through a link to the university network.

The fourth factor was social capital for the mobilization of local resources, as the community broadband initiatives needed to link into different constituencies within the community. Bridging social capital to outside agencies, such as local authorities and funding agencies, was an important part of the expertise contributed by local community leaders. In several case studies, the publicity generated painted the communities as glowing examples of local innovation, to the level of national renown—with mentions in government reports and documents, and profiles by newspaper and TV outlets.

A fifth factor is the commitment of the community. In Peninsular Village, Uplands Village, and Island Village, long-term residents were committed to building their community and had a strong sense of loyalty to it. Although not generally high-profit enterprises, small creative industries have a need for high-bandwidth communications to transmit their work to the wider world, so the presence of certain kinds of local business can be a contributing factor. Similarly, the presence of people wanting to run technology companies or work from home can be important. In the case of Island Community, the Community Trust had bought the land for the community, something possible under Scottish legislation.

Much of the literature is concerned with how public policy can help create smart communities. However, in the case of these communities we can observe more the deployment of a variety of resources (grants from the E.U., grants from local authorities and agencies, use of charitable income, personal investments) as a sixth factor, with public policy playing only an enabling role. In the U.K., the variety of different funds available at local, national, and E.U. levels means that community leaders are those able to tap into this patchwork of resources successfully. Municipalities played an important facilitating role rather than an initiating role. However, state funding from the Scottish regional government and the E.U. through various schemes (especially the LEADER funding) were significant in enabling these initiatives to get off the ground. The fact that this funding is generally short term, however, jeopardizes the sustainability of at least some of these projects.

We can see there is no one model of how these communities develop. Rather, there is a mixture of private and social enterprise, with organizations shifting from one to another over time and as technology and other opportunities change. The fact that they depend upon particular local actors able to mobilize various kinds of capital means they are not a universal model for ICT development for the final 5 percent throughout the U.K. They are the exceptions rather than the rule. They are further rather fragile in the sense that if the key actors leave or resign, or if funding dries up, their long-term sustainability is at risk. On the other hand, if the business model is successful, they may get supplanted by the big telecom companies, which is what is likely to happen in Commuter Village. Perhaps one important legacy of community broadband initiatives is the mobilization of the community itself to access this resource.

back to top  Authors

Claire Wallace is professor of sociology and principal investigator in the EPSRC-funded project Communities and Culture Network+EP/K003585/1. She works in the dot.rural Research Council Digital Economy Hub at the University of Aberdeen. claire.wallace@abdn.ac.uk

Kathryn Vincent is research fellow in sociology and employed on this same grant. k.i.vincent@abdn.ac.uk

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