The community of the twin villages of Piltown and Fiddown- in south County Kilkenny, Ireland built Ireland’s first community-owned fibre to the premises (FTTP) broadband network in Ireland. Broadband for Our Community Clg.: the community’s non-profit company, has negotiated for backhaul on to the spine broadband system, dug trenches and erected poles to carry fibre optic cable to premises, purchased and installed switching and other hardware and sold the service to their fellow community members with the key sales points that:
- Being FTTP, it is a future-proofed system- with effectively no limits on speeds.
- It will be provided at a marginal rate to the local community and businesses: below the usual commercial rate.
- Any profits- and there is significant revenue projected when the network is complete, will be reinvested in the expansion and improvement of the broadband facilities- and/ or in other non-broadband community facilities or activities. Keeping the revenue in the local loop.
The network is in place with over 100 buildings are now covered by the broadband network, and the social enterprise is already turning an operational profit. The community plans to complete another 650 homes in both towns by the end of 2024.
Presentation of the project
The project is based in the closely adjacent Piltown and Fiddown villages in south County Kilkenny, with a combined population of approximately 1,600 people in 750 homes in a 3.4 sq km area have high-speed internet access of more than 150Mbps thanks to a local voluntary initiative.
Broadband 4 Our Community (B4OC), the community’s non-profit company, was conceived following several years of research and investigation of the technological options to address the broadband deficit of rural communities. This included many meetings with communities, local development peers, municipalities, commercial and state broadband stakeholders.
That initial process eventually led to Kilkenny LEADER Partnership’s (KLP) ‘Blue Town’ animation initiative: a series of roadshow information and training sessions funded through the LEADER programme. The initiative’s title was taken from the fact that towns outside the Irish state’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) funding areas, were coloured ‘blue’ on the NBP project map. The NBP would not fund broadband in very many rural villages- including Piltown- Fiddown due to their adherence to the definition of what constitutes high-speed broadband. Blue Town areas were identified as having ‘Next Generation Access’ (NGA) broadband speeds.
The EU’s NGA standard- of 30 mbps download was agreed in 2010. By the time of its proposed implementation date across the Union, it was seen as more of a minimum standard. However, NGA was the standard that the NBP used in deciding which areas did not require state investment.
The Blue Town initiative focused firstly on the practical effects of Irish government and commercial policy and funding positions with regard to rural broadband to rural areas. But as part of the Blue Town roadshow, KLP sought expression of interest in communities interested in installing, operating and owning their own FTTP network. From those interested parties Piltown- Fiddown was selected as the pilot. B4OC was established as a nonprofit company to drive the network development. The new company appointed an appropriately qualified one of their volunteers to work as a Coordinator from among the volunteers, who continued to do the bulk of technical, sales/ marketing, financial planning, administration, and construction works on the project.
KLP used LEADER to assist B4OC in the technical network planning and financial modelling, the training of volunteers to perform tasks such as fibre optic cable splicing, installation, etc. Due to national restrictions on LEADER supporting many broadband capital elements, KLP secured a private philanthropy fund: Tomar Trust, to support that vital element. B4OC negotiated backhaul linage and capacity from a broadband node on the Irish Rail line which ran through the area. This being the first such community link, was one of a series of firsts for Piltown-Fiddown in terms of broadband development in Ireland.
In February 2022 the network went live and the company has connected 100 homes and businesses, with many more in development for connection. In June 2022 B4OC won the overall Irish Digital Town Award, and in October of the year also won European Network For Rural Development’s (ENRD) overall 2022 Rural Inspiration Award.
The lack of high-speed broadband has been recognised as an issue in rural Ireland, with it being a clear strategic action in KLP’s Local Development Strategy. The provision of high-speed broadband as a marginal (rather than a premium) cost is invaluable to attracting and retaining residents and businesses in rural areas.
The project is a first in terms of community broadband provision in Ireland. In that it addresses a need that neither the market- nor state actions are addressing. This in itself is both significantly innovative and valuable as a model. But there are two more elements that make the project even more valuable and emblematic.
- The project is eminently scalable and transferable.
- The project is developing to become a profitable social enterprise, retaining much of the value of the project in the Local Loop.
Scalability: The lessons of Piltown-Fiddown can be build on in the immediate locality: neighbouring towns and villages that will learn from B4OC’s example.
Transferability: The project model is also transferable to other parts of both Ireland and other EU states.
Financially Viable: The business case of a community-owned FTTP broadband network is sound on operation expenses (Op-ex). Most of the costs are in capital works (Cap-ex), which if supported will allow a relatively quick payback period. The surplus accruing by the non-dividend distributing company, can be retained as a operational reserve, reinvested in expansion, subsidise lower charges- or invest in other non-broadband community initiatives.
The success of the Piltown-Fiddown project will mean it can compete for businesses attractions to its community-owned Enterprise Centre; its school can use distance learning technology, its sick and elderly use online consultations; its residents can avail of streaming, teleconferencing and other leisure and utility services. Once again it is a model for transference to other LAG regions.
Video of Piltown B4OC