Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Broadband in the Cockermouth Area

While I was out canvassing in the villages of Cockermouth South in May I spoke at length with many villagers about the problems they are having with internet access.
I consider internet access to be of vital importance for both our economy (as so many of us in Cumbria work from home) and for our quality of life.  As a fellow of the RSA I write about and explore the importance of mass online discussion in enlightening society and improving the quality of democracy.

I’ve been startled by the level of complexity and chaos that I’ve found.  In this blog I’m going to try to describe what’s going on.  I may not have got it right and I’d be very grateful if others could add comments to help improve what I’ve written.
Two Routes for Broadband

The two routes for acquiring broadband are Connecting Cumbria (funded by BDUK and ERDF) and the RCBF (The Rural Communities Broadband Fund).  It is estimated that Connecting Cumbria will ensure 'superfast' (which is defined as being 24Mb/s or greater) broadband reaches 93% of properties in Cumbria by 2015.  Communities not receiving 24Mb/s can devise their own schemes and apply for RCBF funding.  
Connecting Cumbria

This scheme has been highly controversial as virtually all funding has gone straight to BT to help them upgrade their exchange equipment – something which they would have had to have done anyway (but would have had to do more slowly).  Another major problem with the scheme has been that BT have, in many cases, failed to release information regarding which houses will be in the 93% and which will not. There has also been criticism of the quality of the broadband some homes which are covered by the scheme will receive as alternative proposals planned to provide speeds in excess of 500Mb/s.
On a more positive note, 93% coverage is a very substantial undertaking in a very rural county.  Let’s look at the numbers.

According to Wikipedia 496,200 people live in Cumbria.  Of these 318,271 (64%) live in the 20 biggest towns and villages in Cumbria.  Distington is the smallest of these top 20 with just under 4000 people (Cleator Moor has 7000).  So let’s assume people who live in these places are covered.  That leaves 178,000 people in the smaller villages, hamlets and isolated dwelling of Cumbria.  Of these remaining people about 143,000 (80%) should be covered by Connecting Cumbria.  Clearly this figure must include most of our villages.   
On the other hand that still leaves about 35,000 people without broadband and far more with reason to doubt whether the quality of the broadband they look set to receive will meet current, yet alone emerging needs. 

In theory funding is available to help communities to set up their own schemes.   In practice this has been highly problematic due to not only to the uncertainty regarding what Connecting Cumbria will provide but also due to the complex red tape and the legal exposure those seeking to develop schemes have had to face.  Some progress has now been made as Cumbria County council have agreed to act as the accountable body for projects including Eden Valley Digital, Great Asby and Northern Fells.    The Northern Fells group are probably our best source of advice being located nearby (four of the seven parishes involved are in northern and eastern Allerdale).  I hear the BARN (B4NW) project is also making good progress in South Cumbria.

So what’s happening and what should be happening here in West Cumbria?  Your views are invited here, through public or private message on my Facebook page or by contacting my directly (even snailmail to 12 Kirkgate is welcome).
Rebecca Hanson.

Further information is available on the web via the following press releases:

Throughout this article my calculations assume we have the same average number of people per household in isolated dwelling as we have in urban areas.

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