Broadband - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents

Supplementary memorandum submitted by Commission for Rural Communities

  There are two facets to the issue of shared/community use of public services infrastructure and the associated procurement issues:


  One of the major barriers to further private sector investment in rural areas is an alleged lack of demand from local businesses and communities. Our research shows that this demand exists and indeed outstrips that in urban areas, but requires encouragement in order to support the commercial case for investment. We think that the provision of broadband "hubs", for example a school or hospital with the right broadband connectivity, could both fuel and demonstrate demand by increasing access to readily available ICT infrastructure; whether this be through offering a local wireless network or out-of-hours use of facilities.

  These "hubs" would therefore address short-term under-provision of broadband in certain areas. We recognise that this solution would not address longer term investment needs, but would create a short-term stimulus to demand.

  The CRC discussed this point with Rt Hon Jim Knight MP in his former role as Schools Minister, who was supportive of the idea and knows of a similar model in Atlanta. Schools could provide more out of hours access to their broadband facilities for pupils, family and older people without adequate broadband access. If this were to be linked with community broadband initiatives which support training and awareness of users, this could provide a highly cost effective and speedy response to urgent local needs.


  Competition and State Aid regulations in support of public sector procurement are creating a barrier to this shared use of infrastructure. For example, a school's ICT infrastructure being shared by local healthcare providers.

  Following discussions between the CRC and RDA Chairs, an agreement was reached that the way forward is the development of a framework contract between public sector departments in order to enable shared infrastructure development. Clearly this would need to be delivered through the cooperation of all government departments. We see this as a priority of the Digital Inclusion Action Plan team, and will continue to work with them and the RDA ICT leads to achieve this.

  The CRC is also grateful to the Community Broadband Network[59] for adding its technical expertise to the following background clarification on access to JANET and other educational facilities' networks:

  Local education authorities typically procure special networks specifically for education and schools. In the past this has often been a product called "learning stream" from BT, which carried contractual obligations not to use the service for anything other than education, and more recently they have increasingly used the academic network SuperJanet—which again has constraints on what they are allowed to do.

  With a requirement to install at least a 10mbps symmetrical service into every primary school in England, this feels like a golden opportunity to ensure capacity is delivered which can be used by disconnected communities. But it needs very careful procurement.

  In the next generation world, the UK is developing an agreed standard called "Active Line Access". CBN is working with the standards bodies to shape how this evolves, and one of the changes which they have proposed is to support multiple VLAN's[60] to the customer. Essentially this means that a single physical cable will be able to carry more than one separate service. This is a key feature for unlocking schools, where one virtual network could be used for the schools network, while a second could be set-up for a more general internet service for the community—and the two a secured from each other so there is no additional risk for the children. Similar models could work for cottage hospitals.

  Whilst in the future, this will be a tool to support schools and communities together, the landscape today isn't so easy. Many of the existing contracts prevent uses other than education, so there is little that can be done other than to wait until they expire, and ensure replacements are more flexible.

  CBN are also exploring with SuperJanet ways in which they might be able to re-arrange how they work with schools and the community to unlock their networks. SuperJanet are keen, but it is quite a challenging task, and one which they may not be able to make progress on in the short term, especially without development funding.

  It should also be pointed out that procurement models vary around the country. For instance in the North West, the contrast between how the northern and southern halves of the region have approached the problem has created a very useful contrast; The south has taken a more traditional approach of leased circuits, while the north has invested in their own network where possible which has given them more flexibility.

  There are also some practical implementation points to consider:

    —  Many councils are also broadly supportive of making use of school-based infrastructure (where contracts allow), but it can often come down to the attitude of the Head Teacher and the Board of Governors. Some schools are naturally wary of allowing anyone onto their network. A more unified approach (ie Districts and Councils agreeing a `protocol' and any security conditions or methods) might help ease Governing Body's minds.

    —  The grants for broadband into schools have traditionally come into the LEA who have then provisioned most services—this is set to change next year, when schools will receive grants directly. They may then wish to look at collaborating with other local organisations to share the costs of leased lines into their villages etc.

    —  The predicted cutbacks to public sector finance may lead to greater rationalisation of networks and sharing of infrastructure eg between NHS and Education. Some believe that the massive investment in these sectors has previously established "fiefdoms" with IT teams that are reluctant to share resources between departments.

12 November 2009

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