Fiber to the Countryside: A Comparison of Public and Community Initiatives in the UK
37 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2018 Last revised: 13 Aug 2018
Date Written: March 9, 2018
Smart farming, e-health and e-commerce are just some of the multiple opportunities that digitisation offers to rural communities and businesses. Their ability though to participate in the digital economy is often compromised by a lack of high-speed connectivity. Despite the numerous initiatives launched over the years to promote broadband diffusion, such as BTOP in the US and BDUK in the UK, a large proportion of the rural population in the United States and the European Union (EU) are still unable to connect to fiber and 4G networks. As new measures in support of rural broadband have recently been announced by the US government and the EU, further research is needed to understand what business models and public policies are most likely to close the digital divide in rural areas. The evaluation of past initiatives can provide useful insights to enhance the effectiveness of future interventions. Drawing on research presented by Shaffer and Strover et al. at TPRC 2017, this paper further explores how community-led and public initiatives can contribute to promoting the adoption of broadband. Our analysis focuses on two projects deploying fixed broadband networks in the rural United Kingdom: Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) and Connecting Cumbria. The former is a cooperative fiber-to-the-home network financed and built by local residents in the Northwest of England, while the latter is a public-private partnership between British Telecom and Cumbria County Council, providing fiber broadband in areas excluded from commercial deployments. These case studies exemplify how the combination of top-down and bottom-up initiatives enabled the UK to expand the coverage of superfast broadband (defined in the UK as being a download speed of at least 30 Mbit/s) from 22% to 66% of the rural premises between 2014 and 2017. Based on participant observation and interviews with multiple stakeholders, this paper explores the business models adopted by these initiatives and compares their outcomes in terms of broadband coverage and adoption. Despite achieving its coverage goals, Connecting Cumbria did not fully meet the expectations of rural communities, still unsatisfied with the speed available or even unable to access fast broadband. Some villages decided to join B4RN and subsequently leveraged their own skills and financial resources to build a community FTTH network covering every premise. In both cases, the management of expectations and the engagement with broadband users emerged as key success factors. These case studies offer unique insights into the performance of community-led initiatives and public-private partnerships, thereby contributing to the ongoing research and policy debate on the role of local communities and public authorities in broadband markets. By analysing the interplay between public sector, private suppliers and local communities, this research also provides useful recommendations for policymakers and practitioners dealing with the rollout of rural broadband. Furthermore, it contributes to the ongoing research on the adoption of innovation in peripheral areas, by exploring how digital skills develop and disseminate in rural communities.
Keywords: rural broadband, broadband policy, community networks, public and private partnerships, digital divide, digital inclusion
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation