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Community Broadband Project Review for Regeneration and Renewal Magazine

Jun 08, 2010

BlueFish Regeneration reviews North Yorkshire community broadband project for Regeneration and Renewal. Read the article here.

Project review: Stape and Newton-on-Rawcliffe

Helen Parton, Regeneration & Renewal, 1 June 2010

Billy Garrett (with laptop) and residents

Billy Garrett (with laptop) and residents

A new community project has brought wireless broadband to two villages in North Yorkshire with the aim of reducing disadvantage.

While many people take broadband internet access for granted, most residents in Stape and Newton-on-Rawcliffe in the North York Moors National Park could, until recently, only access slow internet services because private providers said it was not economically viable to provide faster access. This left the villages increasingly socially and economically isolated.

More than two years ago, Newton resident and internet businessman Billy Garrett approached NYnet, a public sector-led initiative that aims to ease disadvantage in rural and coastal parts of North Yorkshire by providing broadband, about bringing faster internet services to the villages. With support from the parish council, the Stape and Newton-on-Rawcliffe project won £25,000 in funding.

Last summer, NextGenUs UK, a social enterprise that aims to tackle digital exclusion across the UK, began work on linking the villages to NYnet's network. The link comes from a school in Pickering, seven miles away from Newton-on-Rawcliffe. The school had its broadband network upgraded as part of the project. A signal is beamed between the school and the villages via a series of radio transmitters, ending with five transmitters in the two parishes in which the villages lie. The wireless broadband service began this March. NextGenUs UK employs local internet service provider Beeline Broadband, of which Garrett is managing director, to run the service.

Nearly 50 customers have signed up to the service, which has been free for its first three months, with packages of five and ten megabytes per second available. Each customer has an antennae through which they access the network. Customers include Mike Steele, who runs an event management company and rents out a holiday cottage, and Stape resident Norah Moxon, who uses the internet to order groceries and prescriptions and to arrange doctor's appointments. NextGenUs UK hopes that the service will also be used for teleconferencing, for example allowing home schooling and remote health consultations.

The project also aims to encourage more residents and local firms to stay in the area, helping to reverse the trend of migration away to towns and cities.

Regeneration & Renewal visited the project with Imelda Havers, managing director of York-based consultancy BlueFish Regeneration, which has worked on various rural and coastal regeneration projects, and then asked for her views.

What were your initial impressions?

They were very positive. The right people are in place. Billy Garrett, who is a resident and local businessman, provides the service. (NextGenUs UK chief executive) Guy Jarvis is experienced at providing broadband. There was clearly a grassroots need for broadband that Garrett identified and this has now been delivered.

What are the key benefits?

It helps businesses. B&Bs can take bookings online. Mike Steele can handle the large files necessary for his business. Plus, local firms can sell online. And as NextGenUs UK is a social enterprise, profits are ploughed back into maintaining and improving the network. Furthermore, I believe broadband is an essential utility: this service adds to the quality of local people's lives.

What have you seen that could be improved?

NextGenUs UK and Beeline Broadband don't seem to have sufficient grasp of the project's wider business potential: how firms could come together, for example in a local network to share ideas. Garrett's local knowledge of demand for broadband is great and NextGenUs UK and Beeline Broadband are hot on service delivery and technology, but the business management in the middle - somebody needs to pick up that baton.

What do you think of the project's chances in the long-term?

It's only been running for three months and, as they aren't charging for the first three months, they haven't seen any money yet. But they seem to be saying that the project will be economically viable once they start charging. Despite this, they must ensure its sustainability. The danger is that take-up outstrips capacity, leading to an unreliable service that people abandon. They need to monitor this so they keep up with demand. But, overall, the capital investment and infrastructure is in place, there is good local knowledge and there are public sector champions, in the form of North Yorkshire County Council and Yorkshire Forward. It would be interesting to return in a year and see how it is progressing.

Could the project be replicated elsewhere in North Yorkshire?

There's lots of potential to replicate the project, and there are many lessons that could be passed to other communities about setting up projects, such as getting as many local people as possible involved. However, NextGenUs UK and Beeline Broadband don't seem to be looking particularly at doing this.

Will it attract people to the area?

Yes. People do look at what infrastructure is in an area before they decide to move, regardless of whether they make this assessment from a personal or business perspective. The project will also enable existing residents and firms to stay in the area.

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