A bit more on the Big Society. I mentioned that Rory Stewart wants faster broadband for his constituents in rural Cumbria. Now Rory is a decent guy – I knew him at school – but I don’t think he’s on to anything much with his play to relate the issue of rural broadband provision to Cameron’s Big Society. We might eventually end up with better broadband in Cumbria, but we’ll have gotten there by the hard road: the plan doesn’t do much for the idea of little platoons. The Guardian has a bit more about how Stewart describes his project. Apparently there are three components to it:
1) The government part. The government is going to open up its public infrastructure. It is going to allow us into the fibre optics thick pipes that run to the schools. It is going to put pressure on Network Rail to let us into the thick pipes that run along the Carlisle Settle line.
2) We, as communities, will get a very small government subsidy equivalent to what they would have given us in terms of their universal service commitment. You roll out a parish pump which is to say you go into that thick pipe at your school or on the railway and you bring out a little fibre optic cabinet. Then, and this is the key point, the parish comes and puts together its own plan to get the stuff from the parish pump into their home.
Many of our communities will want to go for fibre optics to the home so they can have super fast stuff. Others will be content to put a wireless hub on top of the pump that will give them two megabytes.
3) The final government support for the community is to provide a loan. If it costs a Â£1,000 to put broadband into your house, if you have a soft loan over 15 to 20 years that is only costing you Â£50 a year.
Now there’s not quite enough technical detail here to comment on viability. What we can do, though, is make a quick comparison with the way Japan has set about solving the same problem. In 2008, JAXA launched a satellite – Kizuna – which allows any rural Japanese household to connect to the internet at 155 Mbps download and 6 Mbps upload. That’s the domestic transmission rate. Small businesses get 1.2 Gbps download. Compare this with the default 2 Mbps rate mentioned in the Cumbrian plan. Note, that’s megabits. Rural Japanese already get between 75 to 600 times the data rate planned for Cumbria, once the parish meetings are held, and the thousand small disagreements about what to do have gotten thrashed out.
In terms of subscriber requirements, the Japanese subscribers only need to install a satellite dish (45 cm at the lower data rate) to get connected. The Cumbrians are expected to raise loans to get cables laid to their houses (note: wouldn’t line of sight microwave be better in some cases?).
In terms of scope and timescale: Kizuna gave coverage to the whole country from launch day onwards. The Eden Valley Big Society plan, once implemented, will cover part of one county of England.
The talk of parish pumps and railway lines is charming, but I think it’s a shame to be literally parochial about something like this. There are situations where a society needs to amass all of its resources to be effective. Communications infrastructure is one of those situations. What’s more, investment in satellites, specifically, is consistent with fiscal stimulus as generally understood (there are British satellite manufacturers). The Big Society talk is surely better saved for the human-to-human stuff, if we’re going to hear about it at all.
Anway, what do Fistful readers suggest vis-a-vis rural broadband. How has this been solved elsewhere?