Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

The town that turned off BT

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday January 12, 2004

The residents of one Yorkshire town got so fed up with being passed over for broadband access that they set up Britain's first ISP cooperative. Kate Bulkley reports

Calder Valley

Calder Valley

The Calder Valley in West Yorkshire is famous for being the poet Ted Hughes's birthplace, having an outstanding annual writing conference and being a slightly eccentric area with an ex-hippie-commune feel about it. Now one of the valley's several market towns, Hebden Bridge, is set to become known for pioneering technology developments in the world of broadband.

This is because the Hebden Bridge community has set up Britain's first cooperative internet service provider (ISP). There are some local ISPs around Britain already, but this co-op version, funded almost entirely without government money, could threaten the very core of BT's future communications business and provide a shining light for like-minded people throughout the country.

The difference between Hebden Bridge's co-op and other local ISPs is that it will provide an even cheaper broadband service, in addition to locally generated news and information. And with a newly installed wireless system, this West Yorkshire community could ultimately bypass the traditional phone system entirely, allowing villagers to phone each other without using the BT network at all. And it's all done on a non-profit basis so that the savings for the co-op members are as high as possible.

This kind of ground-breaking telecommunication model has put a spotlight on the town. "It shows the power of community," says Clive Mayhew-Begg, the CEO and founder of My-Zones Europe Ltd, the technology provider for the project. "It's back to the whole concept of cooperative buying and proves that you don't need to be an AOL to get the best price in the marketplace.

"You can be a group of local people and get the best prices and also have the local value-added aspect, which is really important," he adds. Mayhew-Begg believes as many as 200 similar communities in the UK could soon follow the Hebden Bridge model.

It was just a year ago that the wheels were inadvertently set in motion for the co-op ISP to become reality. A number of people were eager to sign up for broadband, but were prevented by BT, which only upgrades local telephone exchanges if take-up of the service can be guaranteed. In the case of Hebden Bridge that meant 500 connections, which for a small rural community is too high.

So Mark Harrison, an IT consultant who has lived in the town for many years, and some fellow home-workers formed an action group to lobby BT to change its policy. Harrison and his net-savvy group of residents were frustrated with the slowness of their dial-up internet connections and he feared that without broadband the thriving small business community in the area might begin to disperse and hurt the micro economy.

The group lobbied hard but admit they were surprised when in May BT lowered the upgrade trigger to 300 connections. "Our jaws dropped slightly when we realised that the pressure we had put on BT had worked," says Harrison. This meant that broadband was now available to all 10,000 phone lines in the Hebden Bridge area.

However, the action group felt this victory was not enough. Instead of disbanding, they decided to go a step further and take control of their own broadband, and Britain's first cooperative ISP was born.

The project was set up using an initial 70 from co-op shares (1 per member), a 600 grant from the town council, a donation of 5,000-worth of broadband and wireless equipment from the technology supplier MyZones and lots of help from Harrison and others, the latter estimated to be worth as much as 40,000.

Now, seven months after the creation of 3-C (Calder Connect Co-operative), it is providing service to 80 members in Hebden Bridge for 15 to 20 a month, depending on whether members want a fixed-line connection or a (cheaper) wireless connection to broadband.

Today the co-op has 320 members, 200 of them from neighbouring Mytholmroyd. It expects the whole town to sign up for 3-C once BT upgrades Mytholmroyd's telephone exchange in February. The co-op aims to have 1,000 broadband users by the end of 2004, many of them using wireless hotspot technology (Wi-Fi) to share 2-megabit bandwidth connections. Harrison, 3-C's chairman, thinks that through word-of-mouth and locally printed flyers locals up and down the Calder Valley will choose 3-C over other, commercial ISPs.

The savings for members - as much as 10 per month cheaper than BT Openworld broadband - will also mean that a higher percentage of low income homes will be able to afford the service than in other areas of the country. "Through the power of the co-op we want to get into people's homes that wouldn't normally have this kind of high-speed connection to the web, so we can raise people's skills and raise the threshold of who is able to get the service," says Harrison.

There is now a huge buzz around Hebden Bridge as it discovers the power of its own community, says Harrison. Even Stephen Timms, the e-commerce minister, sent a message of support to the recent day of wireless broadband demonstrations in the town.

"The real value for the consumer is that the co-op will develop value-added services that you will never get from BT," says MyZones' Mayhew-Begg. "It's a value proposition. It's a threat to BT and the commercial ISPs and it's an evolution of the net because it enables a different level of services than if they were just bought individually off commercial suppliers."

But not everyone believes co-op ISPs are the way forward. "I see what they are doing in Hebden Bridge as positive because it is good for the community, but I don't see it as sustainable," says Jane Moch, ICT/broadband development manager for the Northamptonshire Partnership, which is bringing broadband to rural communities in that county through public/private partnerships.

"Community broadband networks start out because telecommunication companies are not interested or not able to drive services into an area," says Moch. "If you drive forward by developing a community broadband network, you end up being a telecommunications company - and by becoming a telco you take on all the overhead and the business burdens and the commercial needs of a telco and so it is quite likely to fall apart."

There have been some high-profile failures of community ISPs, such as Invisible Networks in Cambridgeshire. Invisible, headed by Chris Nuttall, the man behind internet pioneer Pipex, became insolvent in October. But Harrison says the co-op approach in the Calder Valley should prevent the kind of difficulties experienced by for-profit ISPs.

"The co-op buys the wholesale broadband from BT, and My Zones does the backed provision of service and the authentication of users," says Harrison. "We have also built in a chunk of money for staff and the co-op will likely have two employees."

Harrison says 3-C will tap into government funding schemes, such as West Yorkshire Social Enterprise, and believes customer support issues can be dealt with through a local co-op volunteer programme. "Most of this has been built through volunteer time and social energy," he says. "It's possible because this is a bit of an eccentric valley. Hebden Bridge is the only place I know that has a Christmas party for people who work from home."

Harrison's can-do approach includes thinking big about how 3-C can earn money consulting for other communities wanting to set up co-operative ISPs. "Even though this is happening in a small valley in rural West Yorkshire, potentially it could be replicated throughout local communities in the UK," he says.

The Hebden Bridge project is helping to fulfil the government's Broadband Britain strategy and provides an example of why the new super-regulator Ofcom is looking very closely at BT's wholesale pricing, making sure the operator is not stifling demand.

And what is BT's view of the initiative? "There are a whole range of different initiatives happening," says a spokesman, "and from BT's point of view they all increase the visibility of broadband in the market. They are just one of 200-plus ISPs that retail our wholesale product."

Related link http://www.3-c.coop/

 

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