Friday, February 04, 2011
How Scaleable is Localism ?
The decision by Lancaster City Council to abandon a pilot Next Generation Access (NGA) broadband project in favour of a County Council scheme raises some interesting questions about the appropriate scale of localism.
Both projects were seeking public funding, £0.75 and £20m respectively, and both were obviously addressing the same issue. There is no reason however why the smaller scheme could not have continued and had its area excluded from the County scheme.
The local scheme was aimed at addressing known notspots (areas with either no broadband or less than 2M downstream) and was a full NGA solution with Fibre to the Home (FTTH). As part of the project preparation a lot of groundwork had been done getting small businesses on board with the proposal. An experienced local expert (Barry Forde) had contributed to the design which was innovative and also depended on community contributions to reduce cost.
The county wide scheme will not be able to rely on achieving the same level of local engagement. It also requires a minimum £20m investment contribution and by adopting a single partner for the whole county restricts itself to large telecoms companies or groups of companies acting together (as in S Yorks Digital Region). By nature of its size it will be slower to deliver and not solve the immediate problem of some notspots.
If we have a "localism" agenda, what is the scale of project we should attempt ? How far does "community" stretch and at what point does it fragment into multiple smaller groups ?
I don't have any answers, but a county is clearly too big a unit. The Cumbria Broadband Project is promoting "parish champions" and the BDUK backed pilot is targeting the Eden Valley rather than the whole county, both of which sound like good ideas.
By going for large schemes we rule out a single coherent community of interest in the project and we restrict the eligible solutions and solution providers to those that can handle large projects and have access to large investment budgets. Is that necessary ? or desirable ?
Perhaps we can't use County Councils to deliver local solutions, unless they are specifically charged with developing solutions made up of manageable sized units that can be individually tendered and tailored to suit an appropriate sized community ?