By Lee Mannion
LONDON, Aug 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Before Chris Conder's village in northern England built its own broadband network, internet speeds were so bad that children who went away to study would refuse to come home for the holidays.
Farmers had to travel to the nearest public library to apply for the agricultural subsidies they were entitled to, or to submit mandatory reports on their livestock to the government.
Now it has some of the best broadband speeds in Britain after villagers took matters into their own hands - part of a growing trend for community-owned networks run independently of the main providers.
"We can do without water and electricity and gas, which a lot of us do ... You can be self-sufficient in the countryside, but you cannot generate broadband," Conder told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It's the one utility you can't make yourself. We have found a way of joining our villages to the world."
Conder now works with Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), which has the legal status of a social enterprise, meaning it is run for the benefit of the community.
B4RN provides broadband to rural villages in the north of England, offering internet speeds hundreds of times faster than the national market leaders. It connected its first 1,000 homes in 2011 and now has about 5,000 customers.
Communities that want to be connected raise money for the infrastructure - the cables and server space - by buying shares in B4RN at 1 pound ($1.30) each and there is a minimum purchase of 100 shares, which can only be sold back to the company.
Anyone who wants a connection then pays a monthly fee of 30 pounds for the B4RN service.
Conder, a founding member of B4RN who was honoured by Queen Elizabeth in 2015 for her work connecting rural communities, said the social impact of the initiative had been far greater than the technical impact.
One of the biggest challenges, she said, was gaining access to government-owned land to lay the necessary cables, particularly around schools and community spaces.
"If we'd known how hard it was going to be and how many obstacles we'd have to overcome, we wouldn't have done it," said Conder, describing the authorities as "very, very obstructive".
Successive British governments have promised to roll out broadband coverage, but target dates have been pushed back and media regulator Ofcom says nearly a million homes still do not have high-speed internet access.
Rural areas are disproportionately affected, putting businesses at a disadvantage and isolating individuals, critics say.
"It's holding back rural economies," said Sarah Lee, policy head at the Countryside Alliance, which campaigns to protect rural life. "Businesses won't be able to compete locally or globally, especially in a time of Brexit."
Good internet speeds also have a social value, enabling elderly people to remain in their homes while also remaining connected to the outside world, she said.
The government pledged at the end of 2017 to make broadband a legal right for people who request it by 2020. But customers who don't meet certain criteria may still be expected to contribute to connections that prove costly.
Virgin Media, one of Britain's two main providers, said certain commercial criteria had to be met before it would undertake the cost of building the infrastructure, made more difficult by the need to navigate conservation areas and secure access to private land.
But landowners are more likely to agree to access for smaller providers that can demonstrate they will serve the community, said Antony Townsend, one of the founders of Broadband for Surrey Hills.
He and his co-founders have raised an initial 100,000 pounds and hope to start connecting households in rural parts of southern England in November.
Among those already interested in the service are local authorities who see it as a way of boosting rural business - and parents with teenage children.
"Dad gets home from work and wants to write a few emails, but can't get online because his kids are watching whatever it is," Townsend said.
"50 megabits per second might have been adequate a few years ago, but it ain't adequate now. The direction of travel is irreversible."
($1 = 0.7680 pounds)
(Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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