Enlarge /. Laying a cable in rural Britain.
Nestled between Lancashire's outstanding beauty, the Forest of Bowland and breathtaking views of the Yorkshire Dales, the quiet, picture-perfect village of Clapham appears to be a long way from the COVID-19 pandemic. When the British government announced a nationwide ban in mid-March, Clapham was on high alert.
Local residents formed what they called "Clapham COBRA", a voluntary emergency initiative aimed at alleviating the negative effects of isolation through the exchange of information, the provision of supplies, and mutual check-in. Like many rural villages, Clapham is geographically isolated and isolated. It is home to an aging population with most around 600 residents over the age of 45. However, when it comes to extreme isolation, it also has a unique advantage: unlike much of rural England, Clapham has one of the best Internet connections in the country – and the locals built it themselves.
Ann Sheridan remembers the moment when she got broadband for the rural north, known as “B4RN” (pronounced “barn”), on her farm in Clapham in March 2016. She told me on the phone:
I remember my neighbors almost getting beaten up because their son downloaded the entire series of Game of Thrones over an internet connection at 2 megabits per second (Mbps). And none of them could do anything else on the Internet for days, could they? So it was clear that if the community was not left behind, we would have to do something.
B4RN planned to expand its fiber optic home network in Clapham in 2014. By the end of 2018, around 180 out of 300 houses in the village were equipped with an affordable symmetrical gigabit per second connection (currently only around 10% of households in the UK can receive such a connection). The speeds are impressive, especially in rural areas where internet connection in the UK is terribly lagging behind urban areas. Rural download speeds average 28 Mbps, compared to an average of 62.9 Mbps in urban areas. B4RN now delivers 1,000 Mbit / s.
The Internet is more important than ever during blocking when lack of access reveals other inequalities in Internet use and skills. However, B4RN means much more for digitally and geographically isolated communities than the internet service it provides.
Enlarge /. Glass fiber cable drum in a sheep field
Kira Allmann, 2019, author provided / The Conversation
A community network
B4RN is registered as a Community Benefit Society, which means that the company belongs to the communities that need it: community members own the company, and in the case of B4RN they also build a large part of the infrastructure themselves. As a result, the process of “getting” B4RN involves a significant amount of effort – time, training, money, and physical labor.
Ann Sheridan was a B4RN master, which means that she led the voluntary efforts to build B4RN in her village. The role included "anything," she recalls. Building a fiber optic internet network from scratch requires a steep learning curve and a lot of teamwork. Community members must map their coverage area, secure permissions (so-called wayleaves) to cross their neighbors' land, and dig trenches across fields and gardens to lay plastic channels for the fiber optic cable.
Ultimately, the connections that B4RN enables in a place like Clapham are more than technological – they are personal. And the effects of these connections are particularly clear now. "Everyone in the village knows everyone, it was like that anyway," explains Sheridan. "But B4RN put missile boosters under it."
Last year I visited and talked to people in many different communities who were involved in building B4RN, and every time I heard a similar story: you dig B4RN in your own garden, but B4RN digs into you too. The mutual understanding and real friendships of the people on site during the construction process go far beyond the installation. In Clapham, collaboration with B4RN contributed to an existing report that was helpful given the Corona virus blockage.
As Sheridan put it: "We know each other. We know our strengths and weaknesses so we can just keep going. "