Enlarge / Laying some cable in rural UK.
Nestled between Lancashire’s stand-out beauty, the Forest of Bowland, and the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire Dales, the serene, postcard-perfect village of Clapham seems far removed from the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the British government announced a nationwide lockdown in mid-March, Clapham went on high alert.
Local residents formed what they dubbed “Clapham COBRA,” a volunteer emergency response initiative that aimed to mitigate the negative effects of isolation by sharing information, delivering supplies, and checking in on one another. Like many rural villages, Clapham is fairly geographically isolated and home to an ageing population, with most of its roughly 600 residents over the age of 45. But when it came to confronting extreme isolation, it also has a unique advantage: unlike much of rural England, Clapham boasts one of the best Internet connections in the country—and the locals built it themselves.
Ann Sheridan remembers well the moment she got Broadband for the Rural North, known as “B4RN” (pronounced “barn”), to her farm in Clapham in March 2016. She recounted to me over the phone:
I remember my next door neighbors nearly coming to blows because their son downloaded the whole series of Game of Thrones on a 2 megabits per second (Mbps) Internet connection. And none of them could do anything else on the Internet for days, right? So it was obvious that if the community wasn’t going to be left behind … we had to do something.
B4RN started planning to roll out its fiber-to-the-home network in Clapham in 2014, and by the end of 2018, around 180 homes out of 300 in the village had been hooked up with an affordable full gigabit-per-second symmetrical connection (currently only around 10% of homes in Britain are even capable of receiving such a connection). The speeds are impressive, especially in a rural context where Internet connectivity lags horrendously behind urban areas in Britain. Rural download speeds average around 28Mbps, compared to 62.9Mbps on average in urban areas. B4RN, meanwhile, delivers 1,000Mbps.
The Internet is more important than ever during the lockdown, where lack of access exposes other inequalities in Internet use and skills. But B4RN means much more to digitally and geographically isolated communities than the Internet service it provides.
Enlarge / fiber-optic cable reel in a sheep field
Kira Allmann, 2019, Author provided / The Conversation
A community network
B4RN is registered as a Community Benefit Society, which means the business belongs to the communities who need it: community members own the enterprise, and in B4RN’s case, they also actually build a lot of the infrastructure themselves. As a result, the process of “getting” B4RN involves a substantial commitment—of time, training, money, and physical labor.
Ann Sheridan was a B4RN “champions,” meaning that she headed the volunteer effort to build B4RN in her village. The role involved “all kinds of things,” she recalls. Building a fiber-optic Internet network from scratch involves a steep learning curve and a lot of teamwork. Community members need to map their coverage area, secure permissions (called wayleaves) to cross their neighbors’ land, and dig trenches across fields and gardens to lay plastic ducting for the fiber-optic cable.
In the end, the connections B4RN facilitates in a place like Clapham are more than technological—they’re personal. And the impact of those connections is especially evident now. “Everybody in the village knows every everyone, it was like that anyway,” Sheridan explains. “But B4RN put rocket boosters under it.”
Over the last year, I have visited and spoken with people in many different communities that have had a hand in building B4RN, and each time I have heard a similar story: you dig B4RN into your own back garden, but B4RN also digs into you. The mutual understanding and genuine friendships fostered among local people during the building process last well beyond the installation itself. In Clapham, the collaborative effort that went into B4RN contributed to a pre-existing rapport that helped in the face of the coronavirus lockdown.
As Sheridan put it: “We know each other. We know our strengths and weaknesses, so we can just crack on with things.”