Locheilnet – the expectations of a community broadband initiative

Cover photo: https://www.locheilnet.co.uk/

The recent Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband plan aims to supply 95% of the country with fibre broadband by 2020 (https://www.scotlandsuperfast.com/). But what does this mean for the 5% of the population not covered by this scheme? By omitting some citizens who have just as much right to fast broadband, the main infrastructure is becoming unsettled by the founding of community broadband (CB) networks which renegotiate a ‘right to infrastructure’ (Jiménez 2014).

The areas excluded from the plan are mostly geographically remote rural communities. The logistical difficulties of setting up superfast broadband here act as a deterrent to the government. However, the people have taken matters into their own hands and founded CB networks. The expectation is that they will have a much more efficient connection that is better value for money than anything the government or large telecommunications companies would provide for a seemingly unprofitable area.

One example is Locheilnet in the West Highlands. This CB company connected its first customers in 2013 and now has over 250 users (https://www.locheilnet.co.uk/about-co9x). Before its genesis, slow broadband was restricting online communication and hampering local business expansion, such as Glenfinnan House Hotel. Now the speed is so fast, it is attracting new residents to the area who need the Internet to run their business. There is new found value in the community and a strong presence of ‘identity capital’ (commitment to community building) after being excluded from the original nationwide initiative (Wallace et al. 2015: 115). CB has disrupted stereotypes of rural living by creating a locus of social interaction and increasing control over daily actions.

But this is not the whole picture, as £91,500 of funding for the project came from the government, Community Broadband Scotland (CBS) (Ashmore et al. 2015), meaning that Locheilnet is not a fully decentralised network. This highlights tensions between the desire for independence from the government but the need for resources to facilitate the initiative (Wallace et al. 2015). This was most apparent in the start-up stage, when they were running far behind schedule because professionals were not used to install the line. Locheilnet requested additional funding from CBS to speed up the process, showing their dependency on external financial capital to facilitate their goals (https://www.locheilnet.co.uk/single-post/2013/11/03/Progress). The expectation of a fully decentralised system enabled by the local community was not met, but a new found ‘right to infrastructure’ has enabled the creation of a new kind of rural political citizen (Jiménez 2014). Locheilnet is run by locals for locals, empowering them through their fast connection and making a political statement without need for protest.

Therefore, it is not just open-source urban projects that foster a ‘right to infrastructure’, but also rural projects. CB networks illustrate the possibility of political citizenship, instead of being cut-off from the rest of a highly-interconnected nation. What is important in this example is that the initiative was taken by the local people and merely facilitated in part by the government, changing the distribution of digital infrastructure in a novel way.

 

Bibliography

Ashmore, F. H., Farrington, J. H. and Skerratt, S. 2015. Superfast Broadband and Rural Community Resilience: Examining the Rural Need for Speed. Scottish Geographical Journal, 131(3-4): 265-278.

https://www.scotlandsuperfast.com/ accessed 16/03/2017

Jiménez, A. C. 2014. The Right to Infrastructure: a Prototype for Open Source Urbanism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (2): 342-362.

https://www.locheilnet.co.uk/about-co9x accessed 27/02/2017

https://www.locheilnet.co.uk/single-post/2013/11/03/Progress accessed 04/03/2017

Wallace, C., Vincent, K., Luguzan, C. and Talbot, H. 2015. Community Broadband Initiatives: What makes them successful and why?. In Proceedings of the 7th international conference on Communities and Technologies: 109-117.

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