Fibre to the community; business hubs; and killing the commute

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Our country desperately needs investment in infrastructure yet we can’t afford it, either politically, financially, or environmentally. At the same time, driven by rising house prices and other considerations, people are living ever further from their workplace, with consequential impacts on family life and local communities. So what can we do to redress the balance?

In a word: localisation.

Or, in a few more words: stay at home; cut down travel; and rebuild communities.

For years now, we’ve been hearing (usually from companies selling tools to enable remote working) that teleworking is the future. It is, or at least working remotely for part of the time can be (people still need human contact) but we’re constrained by our communications infrastructure.

Super fast broadband services are typically only available in metropolitan areas, with fibre to the home (FTTH) or even fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) a distant dream for rural communities, even those that are a relatively short distance from major cities.

So why not create business hubs in our small towns and villages – office space for people to work, without having to travel for miles, taking up space on a train or a road, and polluting our environment?

Local councils (for example) can provide infrastructure – such as desks and Internet access (a connection to one central point may be more cost effective than wiring up every home) – and employees from a variety of companies have the benefit of a space to network, to share ideas, to work, without the need to travel long distances or the isolation and poor communications links (or family interruptions) encountered at home.

The location might be a library, a community centre, a coffee shop, the village pub (which desperately needs to diversify in order to survive) – all that’s really needed is a decent Internet connection, some desks, maybe meeting rooms and basic facilities.

Meanwhile, instead of spending our money in the coffee shops of London (or wherever), local businesses stand to benefit from increased trade (fewer commuters means more people in the town). Local Post Offices may become economically viable again, shops get new trade and new businesses spring up to serve the community that was previously commuting to the city.

Cross-pollination in the workplace (conversations at the hub) may lead to new relationships, partnerships with other companies and generally improved collaboration.

Families benefit too – with parents working closer to home, there’s time to see their children (instead of saying goodnight over the phone on a long commute after another late night in the office); and, generally, there’s an improvement in social well being and community involvement.

The benefits to the community and to society at large are potentially huge, but it needs someone (which is why I suggest local government, although central government support may be required) to kick-start the initiative.

If foundations like Mozilla can create Mozilla Spaces in our cities, why can’t we create spaces in our small towns and villages? Spaces to network. Spaces to work. Spaces to collaborate. Spaces to invigorate. To invigorate individuals and to rebuild our communities.

It all seems so logical, so what have I missed?

11 thoughts on “Fibre to the community; business hubs; and killing the commute

  1. I think what you’re looking for is “Hackerspaces” [1][2], or failing that, co-working spaces. From a more commercial perspective, Regus do have virtual offices, short-hire office space and meeting rooms for rent.

    I think there are a few issues with them – the most common being that people seem to struggle with finding out about these sorts of things, and when they do find out about them, they’re either too expensive, or have “too weird” people in them (many hack spaces seem to attract more geeky people than the norm, I’ve found).

    Anyway, I’ll watch this thread with great interest.

    *disclaimer* – I was involved in the founding of a hackspace [3], and I run or moderate several hackspace mailing lists, both for my local and regional spaces [4] and one for the UK [5].


  2. As an IT manager working in local goverment at the moment I certainly agree with your comments. We certainly do drive a public network access through our Library services and adult education centres and more and more customer contact centres are being made available in libraries. Like anything the more diverse services we can offer the more footfall and potential business and public engagement we can attract.

  3. @Martyn That’s good to hear – are you aiming to provide services to individual homes and business though, or creating “business hubs” like the one I described?

  4. @WombleGooner Libraries are a great starting point as they benefitted from previous rounds of government investment in providing broadband links (at least, that’s the impression I have) but they are still thin on the ground and only serve larger communities.

    The sort of concept I describe could work with small towns of around 6000-10000 population, with some people travelling from surrounding villages, but avoiding longer journeys.

    The biggest stumbling block is that it would need some investment to get the ball rolling, and without a proven business case that would need either a local benefactor or a forward looking authority (with funds, which are thin on the ground right now!)

  5. @Jon Hacker spaces are a similar concept and I know I’ve used the Mozilla Space in London, which operates along the same lines. The trouble is that even the name sounds “geeky” and for real success in rural communities the “business hub” needs to attract people from a range of backgrounds – not just a technical community.

    In fact, the tech community probably “gets it” – the difficulty is in persuading others of the advantages. I remember campaigning for the ADSL upgrade in our town in 2002 – back then convincing the local Chamber of Commerce that high speed Internet access (all 512K) would be advantageous to local businesses was very difficult. Thankfully BT relaxed the rules and upgraded the exchange but we’re not going to see a superfast broadband connection any time soon…

    I did think about Regus offices but, as far as I can see, they are typically in the lage towns and cities (so not really solving the problem) and can be quite expensive.

  6. Hi Mark. B4RN is connecting ALL properties in its area. The community is stepping up with many things and with gigabit FTTH I would not be surprised if hubs were set up. B4RN is providing the infrastructure it’s up to the community what they do with it. To date we have had several groups make enquiries as to what they could make possible with the service.

  7. @Mark. B4RN is delivering FTTH to 100% of the properties in the area. While not explicitly creating the hubs you describe I believe that once the community has the connectivity these sort of things and more will come. B4RN is providing the infrastructure, what the community do with that is their choice but initial sign are very encouraging.

  8. I both like the idea and expect that we will “rebuild communities” (this is an outcome, it is not the corporate target) to an extent once we have a corporate buy-in for working in “business libraries”. With more people working project based rather than as a full time employee, there already is a population of knowledge workers to whom such capability would make sense. Shared services for travel, technical support etc. by local enterprises would strengthen the alternative.
    Until recently we mostly viewed mobility as an access paradigm; solved long time ago. Now it’s anytime anywhere paradigm driven by mobile devices, mobile network, mobile apps, cloud storage, user experience; should be called thoughout-the-day. Organizational and spatial elements will follow these technological views.
    Could be that the first wave comes with a “green” face, sustainability, ecology and so on used as benefits. Once we get over those (not against them) and focus on productivity, efficiency, ability to leverage versatile competencies, sharing of viewpoints, team structures, management of remote work – how we accompany current organization with the benefits of the new – the real business gains (financial, operational, human resource) become visible. It will require new solutions for office settings, density, appeal, security, acoustics, and ICT. Maybe there will be specialized places for team work, document creation, sharing of ideas, or different campaign days to schedule such work in one place.
    Our existing open office spaces are awful, they are quiet libraries where people whisper and then step aside to another room to do any collaboration or team work.

  9. Glen, Thanks for taking the time to stop by and leave a comment.

    I think you’re spot on that the success or otherwise of schemes such as the one I describe will depend upon corporate buy-in (i.e. allowing employees to work from such locations). Certainly I can see this starting to take off as we see greater adoption of results-oriented working (or holding several part time positions).

    You also make an interesting point that mobility is less about providing access and more about location. I suspect that Northern European countries will be more receptive (from a geographic and an environmental perspective) but, over here, there are massive benefits for Brits like me, as long as we can shake off the London-centric work (and commute) culture!

    BTW, totally agree that existing office spaces simply do not work. It will take some bold leadership to make the necessary organisational changes though (I’m not talking about any one company or organisation, but about the culture of business in general).

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