The LEADER Legacy: Balquhidder Community Broadband
Project name: Balquhidder Community Broadband CIC
Project Manager: David Johnston
Contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org, 01877384227
SRDP funding: Forth Valley and Lomond LEADER £15,000
SRDP priority: Social Inclusion & local development
Location: Balquhidder, FK19 8PB
What are the aims of your project?
A lack of suitable broadband speeds and connectivity is a serious problem in Scotland’s rural areas, and although the government has committed to drastically improving the situation through the ‘Step Change 2015’ and ‘R100’ broadband schemes, there are still many outlying rural areas which are yet to benefit from these commitments or have been told that they won’t be included in the scheme’s catchment area.
Balquhidder is one such area, a small rural community with just under 200 properties and a population of between 200 and 250 depending on season, including about 35 school aged children. There is also a significant number of business operating in the area all who require fast internet. It is currently poorly served by all forms of communication media. Broadband is delivered through ADSL or satellite, which is expensive, slow and not available everywhere. There is no 3G or 4G mobile signal, and the only 2 mobile service providers which operate in Balquhidder Glen still don’t provide full coverage for the entire area.
The aim of the project is to deliver a world class 1 Gb/s fibre to the property broadband connection to every property in the Balquhidder community using community volunteers and resources to reduce the local network build costs to within the funding budget levels.
How did your project achieve these aims?
To achieve this Balquhidder Community Broadband (BCB) was established as a Community Interest Company and a partnership with Bogons Limited, an established ISP, was formed. The willingness of Bogons to commit to a capital investment, along with the commitment of community volunteers to provide the labour, machinery and skills to build the local network is the basis which makes this a viable project and for the partnership to deliver a community owned local infrastructure network at approximately half the commercial cost. The funding support provided by Stirling Council, LEADER and the Gigabit Voucher Scheme provided the final pieces in the funding matrix which allowed the project to progress.
BCB was set up with four directors, David Johnston. Richard Harris, Mark Venables and Donald McGregor who are all residents in the glen. And after exploring various next generation options for better broadband it was concluded that the only option which was future-proof, upgradable and could guarantee full coverage to every property was a fibre to the property solution. This exercise found Bogons and a partnership arrangement was formed whereby BCB volunteers would lay the ducting with Bogons providing the ISP services and technical expertise. Having designed and costed the build, funding was then sought from Stirling Council, Leader, the Gigabit Voucher Scheme and of course the capital investment from Bogons themselves. With Bogons cash flowing the project this allowed the build to commence.
Where did you go for help and advice?
Bogons brought their own technical advice and expertise. An on the ground survey of the glen by an experience fibre laying company was commissioned which provided general route guidance and the well-respected ‘altnet’ leading business, Broadband for the Rural North (https://b4rn.org.uk), who are the trailblazers in delivering community build 1 Gb/s fibre to the property broadband provided a great deal of advice, knowledge, support and good practice.
How has your project benefitted your local area?
Currently around 20k of core fibre has been laid, 77 properties have been connected and there is free Wi-Fi for those still to be connected at the Village Hall, the Church and the Stronvar Cabinet. We work most days and weekends and around 50 residents have so far volunteered their services in digging, pulling or providing food and refreshments. That’s just over 40% completed.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
Each property we connect is a great achievement and provides a transformational experience for the beneficiary property occupier. One of our main businesses, the iconic Monachyle Mhor Hotel, holds a weekend festival in May each year with around 5,000 visitors attending, camping to enjoy the music, food and various other entertainments. Despite working hard to lay a connection to the hotel in time for the festival it became clear that we weren’t going to get there by in time for the 2018 event. We therefore set about providing a point to point wireless link across Lock Voil which provided an internet link for all visitors and staff. This was well received as mobile coverage is poor or non-existent around the hotel and the sale of weekend passes provided a welcome addition to the project’s funds.
The project was shortlisted for the EU Broadband Awards 2018, won Best Community Project in the Inca Gold Awards 2018 and was the Scottish Rural Parliament Transport and Infrastructure Winner 2018.
And the biggest challenge?
Initially the biggest challenge was setting a realistic budget and then finding the funding to make it happen. Eventually we had to start before knowing whether we would be successful with the Gigabit Voucher Scheme but once the initial steps on the network build were taken the project began to take on its own momentum.
There has been challenges with the weather, crossing listed bridges, wayleaves and neighbour disputes but ultimately with patience and an approach based on community unity and benefit resolved all of these issues have been resolved.
Volunteers come and go but recognising that the work can only be done in an incremental manner as and when materials and help is available means that the approach to project planning and delivery is best run with a light touch and the promise that we will get there in the end. This is easy for the community to understand and while I am sure many would like to see faster progress, they understand that we are not operating as a commercial concern and that this is the only way that the service can be delivered.
Any tips for those setting up a similar project?
Doing something like this, with the amount of community involvement involved depends on promising that once completed they will not have to do it again in their lifetime. The only technology which currently provides this guarantee if a fibre solution. ‘Superfast’ fibre to the cabinet, satellite and wireless solution are simply stop gaps and will eventually have to be replaced with fibre. DCMS with its Gigabit Voucher Scheme recognises this and is already beginning planning for switching the copper off. With this believe you can begin to convince your community that currently, in rural Scotland, the only way of achieving a fibre to the property solution is for the community to do it themselves now or wait decades for the government to do it.
We have learnt that once you start the build and begin to show initial progress with property connections the wider community’s interest will follow, support will grow, and the volunteers will turn out to help.
If we could turn back the clock, I believe that we should have started the build earlier and just believed that the funding would come. Our negotiation for funding with Community Broadband Scotland, which eventually proved fruitless, held us back as a condition of any grant from them was that the project had not started.
What’s next for your project?
We are looking to complete the project by the summer or autumn of 2019 at which point everyone in the Balquhidder Community will be connected and able to use our world class broadband service. Having delivered the service it is clear that there is an education/training requirement to allow everyone the opportunity to make the most of the benefits from such a next generation service. We have started exploring how this can be achieved and are in talks with Stirling Council over developing Balquhidder Village Hall as a modern business/community hub. Looking to what the Balquhidder community might require from the hall over the next 25 years developments being discussed include a business hub space, modern conference/meeting facilities, village cinema, community activity/social/educational hub, tele health, and any other feasible aspirational ideas.