Experiential learning and design thinking for digital entrepreneurs-to-be.

As a Lecturer of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, I am committed to create a safe space for my students to experiment with entrepreneurial ideas and explore their entrepreneurial attitudes. I have often used pitch talks and business plan competitions to integrate experiential learning in my teaching and assessment, but my ambition is to push this even further and get my students to develop tangible prototypes of their business ideas.

This can become quite challenging if students decide to develop a smartphone app or digital service as part of their task (which happens most of the time!). I teach in a Business School and neither my students nor myself have expertise in coding or using programming languages.

Therefore I have been long facing this dilemma: how can I support students to develop prototypes for their digital apps and services?

I found the answer thanks to Enterprise Educators UK (EEUK). Early this year I was among the recipients of EEUK Richard Beresford Bursary, that allowed me to attend an online course on prototyping for digital experiences, delivered by IDEO.

IDEO is the Olympus of design thinking, advocating for a human-centred design that keep people at the centre of creative work. Their approach has been truly inspirational for my teaching: I often use some of their design thinking techniques as part of my seminars to stimulate creativity and elicit entrepreneurial ideas. Their course on prototyping for digital experiences has been extremely helpful to understand how design thinking techniques can be applied to prototype human-centred digital services.

Technology is never the startingt point. First of all, you need to map the needs and desires of your potential users. Therefore, developing a digital prototype does not require coding skills or software development tools. All you need is a piece of paper, some markers or crayons, and a good knowledge of who your users are and what they want.

Through the course, not only did I learn about IDEO’s approach to prototyping: I also experienced myself their tips and techniques to unleash creativity and build low-fidelity prototypes for digital services.

  • First, I had to reflect on my own experiences as a digital user and redesign my interaction with a digital service to make it more useful, usable and enjoyable.
  • Secondly I had to pick up a digital experience and audience to design for, using IDEO spinners…

I ended up sketching a prototype for a public transit payment for passionate dog owners. Even if my drawing skills are debatable, I think I did a good job (you can judge yourself, see the pic below).

Definitely this course gave me a lot of insights into prototyping for digital experiences and is going to be a great inspiration for my teaching modules. I feel that now I can push experiential learning even further, showing students how to sketch a prototype for a smartphone app or a digital service. Following the hands-on approach developed by IDEO, students will be able to fully explore and challenge their creativity, creating tangible sketches of their virtual ideas. They will also have a chance to reflect on the importance of design for entrepreneurs and to appreciate how technology is (or should be) developed.

I am very grateful to EEUK for giving me the opportunity to learn new methods for experiential learning that will immensely benefit my teaching. I look forward to bring my new expertise to the classroom and to share it with my new students at Edinburgh Napier University… hopefully they can draw better than I can do!

On tax breaks, public subsidies and community networks.

The UK government has recently decided to suspend the application of tax breaks to community benefit societies. A full description of what happened is reported here. I am neither an expert nor passionate of fiscal matters, but I would like to share some thoughts about the impact of this decision on community broadband networks.

Tax breaks have been quite useful to support community broadband networks in the UK (and in Spain, too). They offer a financial incentive for local investors and often represent the only support from public sector to these initiatives. Suspending the application of tax breaks may discourage local communities from investing in their own networks, although the need for fast broadband may be stronger than any fiscal incentive. 

I must say that the UK government, on its website (updated just 2 weeks ago) admitted that “the Enterprise Investment Scheme, Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme and Social Investment Tax Relief (known as EIS, SEIS and SITR) are well suited to raising funds for investment in broadband schemes”. Then I hope that the government will reintroduce some sort of tax breaks in favour of community networks, once any fiscal or legal issues will be sorted out.

Unfortunately I have read somewhere online that the government is thinking to replace tax breaks with direct subsidies. Whether this is just rumours or not, I feel the need to share some insights from my research on community networks (see here and here for my latest papers on this topic).

Public subsidies are not necessarily the best solution for community networks.

Under the current regulatory regime, the use of public funding entails a number of administrative requirements that local communities are most likely unable to deal with.

Furthermore public subsidies are at odds with the ethos of community networks. The success of these initiatives depend on their ability to mobilise local resources and encourage people to share their time or money to build a cooperative network. Public subsidies make it easier to launch such projects but may undermine their sustainability in the long term.

As communities no longer need to raise funding and invest their own money, they have little incentive to engage in the roll-out or get involved in the project. However, the engagement of local communities not only favours network investment: it also raises interest and encourage demand for broadband services, thereby ensuring a stable customer base to the network.

Community networks have been on the scene for more than 15 years. Lots of these initiatives just relied on public subsidies and then failed because unable to become economically and financially sustainable. Projects like B4RN in the UK and Guifi.net, instead, have proved that community networks can be sustainable, if local communities effectively engage and contribute to the projects. 

If the government is willing to support these initiatives, there are plenty of actions to put in place. Public subsidies are not necessarily the solution, but may become part of the problem!

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E se Telecom ritornasse un’impresa di Stato?

La notizia che Cassa Depositi e Presiti si sia decisa ad investire in Telecom Italia deve avere fatto scalpore in Italia, se a parlarne sono addirittura i telegiornali, di solito non troppo interessati a quello che succede nel settore delle telecomunicazioni. L’ex-monopolista si trova ad affrontare l’ennesima battaglia societaria, con il fondo americano Elliott in guerra contro l’attuale azionista di maggioranza, la francese Vivendi. In concomitanza, Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP), controllata dal Ministero dell’Economia e finanziata con il risparmio postale, ha annunciato l’acquisto di azioni fino al 5% del capitale di Telecom Italia (TIM). L’acquisizione di una quota in TIM consentirebbe a CDP di giocare una partita nelle diatribe societarie e favorire il piano di fusione con Enel Open Fiber e di scorporo della rete, da tempo caldeggiato da CDP e governo – una faccenda di cui mi sono occupato qui.

Ho letto i più disparati commenti sulla faccenda (segnalo, tra gli altri, un ottimo articolo su Linkiesta). Come al solito, il dibattito finisce per afflosciarsi su posizioni ideologiche. Da un lato, i liberisti che gridano allo scandalo per un Stato interventista che interferisce con le dinamiche di una società privata e quotata in Borsa. Dall’altro, nazionalisti e nostalgici che plaudono al ritrovato interventismo statale, sempiterna risposta ai problemi del mercato e in difesa dell’interesse nazionale. Chi ha ragione? Vediamo di fare un po’ di chiarezza.

È un ritorno all’economia di stato?

Le telecomunicazioni sono state un monopolio pubblico fino a metà anni Novanta. Sulla spinta delle riforme europee, in quelli anni si procedette a liberalizzare i vari settori a rete, dalle telecomunicazioni all’energia. A differenza di quanto successo per gli altri monopoli statali (Enel, Eni e Ferrovie, per intenderci), lo Stato scelse di privatizzare il monopolista, senza detenere alcuna quota in Telecom Italia. Negli anni si sono succeduti vari proprietari – nomi come Pirelli e Telefonica, mica dilettanti – ma i risultati sono stati (a dir poco) deludenti. Telecom era uno dei principali player mondiali nelle telecomunicazioni, oggi ha attività rilevanti solo in Brasile e in Italia ed è oberata da un debito mostruoso, regalo dei vari azionisti privati. Altri ex-monopolisti, come Deutsche Telekom e France Telecom, hanno avuto un destino migliore, pur rimanendo in parte controllati dai rispettivi governi.

Tutto questo per dire che la proprietà privata non si è rivelata migliore di quella pubblica (anzi) quindi inorridire al rientro dello Stato nel capitale del principale operatore di telecomunicazioni mi pare fuori luogo. Lanciare proclami allarmisti mi pare pure in cattiva fede, perché di fatto il settore pubblico ha continuato a giocare un ruolo chiave nei settori a rete, nonostante venticinque anni di liberalizzazioni, in Italia come in Europa. Tanti operatori sono ancora in parte partecipati da governi nazionali, senza contare municipalizzate e provider locali controllati da Comuni o Regioni. E, come ho discusso nel mio ultimo paper, il supporto del settore pubblico resta un fattore fondamentale per lo sviluppo di infrastrutture, a prescindere dalla proprietà dell’operatore di rete. Insomma, che ci piaccia o no, lo Stato non se ne è mai andato dal mercato ed è forse ora di farsene una ragione!

Lo Stato ci salverà?

Che il pubblico, in tutte le sue diramazioni, sia ancora un protagonista nell’economia è un dato di fatto che va analizzato superando ideologie e preconcetti. Su entrambi i fronti. Quando leggo che una TIM (parzialmente) pubblica agirebbe nell’interesse nazionale, mi sorgono infiniti dubbi. Siamo sicuri che un’impresa pubblica faccia sempre e solo l’interesse della nazione?

Non c’è dubbio che, nell’era digitale, avere accesso a reti sicure e di alta qualità sia una priorità per qualsiasi Stato. Uno dei problemi che affligge il nostro Paese, e che si rinfaccia costantemente a TIM, è la mancanza di una rete ad alta velocità e capillare, che consenta a tutti i cittadini di accedere a Internet con prestazioni elevate. È opinione diffusa che tale obiettivo possa essere raggiunto solo attraverso la realizzazione di reti in fibra ottica che arrivino quanto più possibile vicino a casa dell’utente (FTTH). In questi anni, TIM ha posato fibra fino agli armadi di strada (FTTC), perché portarcela in casa costa troppo. È tutta colpa degli azionisti privati? Siamo sicuri che una TIM pubblica farebbe diversamente?

La tabella qua sotto riporta la copertura delle reti a banda ultralarga realizzata da ex-monopolisti e la quota del loro capitale detenuta da autorità pubbliche. Il confronto europeo dimostra che non esiste una relazione diretta tra investimenti in reti veloci e proprietà pubblica. La maggior copertura è stata raggiunta dagli ex-monopolisti di Paesi Bassi, Portogallo e Belgio, ma solo nel terzo caso il pubblico detiene ancora una quota rilevante del capitale. E non è detto che un operatore parzialmente pubblico abbia maggiore incentivo a investire nelle più performanti reti FTTH: in Germania e Belgio, nonostante l’azionista pubblico, l’ex-monopolista ha prevalentemente realizzato reti FTTC (posando la fibra fino all’armadio di strada) mentre operatori interamente privati, come l’ex-monopolista olandese e spagnolo, hanno posato la fibra fino a casa dell’utente.

Passando al tema della sicurezza,  i casi emersi di recente (vedasi Facebook e Cambridge Analytica) hanno dimostrato come tale questione sia tanto delicata quanto complessa. Mi sembra chiaro che la sicurezza online non dipenda soltanto dal controllo delle reti, ma riguardi tutti gli attori coinvolti nella fruizione dei servizi online, dai produttori di device ai fornitori di contenuti e applicazioni.

Agitare lo spauracchio della cybersecurity per giustificare operazioni di altra natura mi pare anche di cattivo gusto. Non solo. Usare lo spauracchio della sicurezza per ricreare un monopolio delle reti telecomunicazioni è anche controproducente per l’intero paese. Come ho già discusso qui, ritengo che riportare tutte le principali reti di telecomunicazioni sotto un unico proprietario sia nocivo per il mercato e per il Paese. Si andrebbe a sacrificare i benefici indubbi della concorrenza senza avere alcuna certezza che il neo-monopolista realizzi reti capillari e sicure. 

In conclusione: Stato sì o Stato no? Io credo che il punto sia proprio un altro. Quello che ci vuole è un mercato aperto e competitivo, dove Stato e imprese collaborano per promuovere l’accesso all’innovazione digitale. Scavalcando gli interessi di singoli azionisti e burocrati.

Che sia pubblico o privato, è fondamentale che l’investimento nelle reti di telecomunicazioni smetta di seguire logiche politiche o imprenditoriali di breve periodo per garantire al Paese l’infrastruttura che si merita.

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Ex-monopolista Quota di proprietà pubblica Copertura banda ultralarga Tecnologia
Italia Telecom Italia 0% 77%

10%

FTTC

FTTH

Regno Unito British Telecom 0% 95% FTTC
Germania Deutsche Telekom 32% 71% FTTC
Francia France Telecom 27% 25% FTTH
Austria A1 Telekom Austria 28.5% 35% FTTC
Belgio Belgacom 53.5% 94% FTTC
Danimarca TDC 0% 30% FTTC e FTTH
Finlandia Elisa 1% 65% FTTH
Grecia OTE 10% 60% FTTC
Irlanda EIR 0% 86% FTTC
Paesi Bassi KPN 0% 90% FTTC e FTTH
Norvegia Telenor 54% 40% FTTH e cavo
Portogallo PT Comunicações 9% 95% FTTH
Spagna Telefonica 0% 93% FTTH
Svezia Telia 37% 35% FTTH

Fonte: OECD Communications Report 2013, Cullen International.

Continue reading “E se Telecom ritornasse un’impresa di Stato?”

Mr Gove, Brexit and the rural divide… let’s be precise!

Last week, in his speech at the National Farmer Union conference, Michael Gove (the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)  identified access to fibre broadband and 4G as a key priority for the rural UK.

This may sound odd to those thinking of the countryside as a wild and old-fashioned world, not interested in the modern technologies. In point of fact, access to internet and digital services can hugely benefit rural communities and businesses. Unfortunately, rural areas have been struggling with poor connectivity for a long time.

So, well done to Mr Gove for acknowledging this issue and taking a clear stance in favour of universal access to broadband! Hopefully his statement will be followed by some concrete actions to support broadband rollout to the most remote communities.

Indeed I do agree with Mr Gove that “we must argue for this investment not just with passion but also precision”: too often public policy in broadband networks has been led by ideology rather than common sense.

Pity that the Secretary of State himself did not resist the temptation of reaffirming his personal beliefs, blaming the EU for the lack of connectivity in rural areas. What would you expect from a Brexiter, after all?

Following Mr Gove’s recommendation, I have decided to put my passion aside and share with you a brief yet precise analysis of his statements…

  • “inside the EU, rules on state aid have prevented us from investing in broadband in a way that is best for the UK”.

The EU state aid guidelines indeed pose a number of restrictions on public interventions in the superfast broadband market. For example, public funds must be assigned through a competitive process and cannot be allocated to areas already served by commercial operators, in order to minimise market distortions.

Such a bureaucratic approach, however, has not foreclosed opportunistic behaviours from incumbents, whilst limiting the responsiveness of public bodies to new market stimuli. Consequently, I agree with Mr Gove that the EU State aid guidelines are far from being perfect.

Yet, it would be unfair to put all the blame on the EU regulation. For example, the failure of the Mobile Infrastructure project has nothing to do with the EU state aid guidelines. Likewise, if the Broadband Delivery to UK programme failed to target the areas most in need for public intervention is not (only) due to the limitations of the current EU regulation.

 

  • “when we leave the EU we can put that money towards domestic priorities, like making our digital infrastructure work by improving rural broadband and connectivity overall.”

I cannot disapprove Mr Gove’s intention to devote “the money we no longer have to give to the EU” to rural communities (even though I thought they had already been promised to NHS… )

However, the Secretary of State could have been more precise and mention the considerable amount of EU funding invested to expand broadband coverage across the UK over the past 10 years.

As detailed in the table below, almost £300m from the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) have been invested to support the supply of fast broadband, under the BDUK programme or other local projects. And the table does not include the numerous projects funded by ERDF to promote the digitisation of businesses and the creation of digital enterprises across the UK.

In fact, 13% of the £1.7m public funding invested since 2011 in the BDUK programme came from the EU purse. In Cornwall, the EU funded 40% of the overall investment needed to provide 95% of the premises with superfast broadband. (… and, yet, 56.5% of Cornish electors voted to leave)

 

 Local Authority  Project  Amount (m)
 Wales  BDUK Phase 1  £           80.0
 Cornwall  Superfast Cornwall  £           53.5
 Scotland  BDUK Phase 1  £           25.0
 Lancashire, Blackpool, Blackburn with Darwen  BDUK Phase 1  £           16.5
 Norther Ireland  BDUK Phase 1  £           16.5
 Cumbria  BDUK Phase 1  £           13.7
 Cheshire East, Cheshire West & Chester, Warrington, Halton  BDUK Phase 1  £           13.6
 South Yorkshire  Digital Region  £           11.7
 North Yorkshire  BDUK Phase 1  £           11.6
 West Yorkshire  BDUK Phase 1 & 2  £           11.1
 Greater Manchester  BDUK Phase 1  £             5.0
 East Riding of Yorkshire  BDUK Phase 1  £             4.4
 Merseyside  BDUK Phase 1  £             4.4
 Nottinghamshire  BDUK Phase 1  £             2.7
 Derbyshire  BDUK Phase 1  £             2.5
 Cambridgeshire  BDUK Phase 3  £             2.3
 North Lincolnshire, North East Lincolnshire  BDUK Phase 1  £             2.1
 Northumberland  BDUK Phase 1 & 2  £             2.0
 Warvickshire  BDUK Phase 3  £             2.0
 Worcestershire  BDUK Phase 3  £             1.6
 Leicestershire  BDUK Phase 1  £             1.2
 North Yorkshire  BDUK Phase 3  £             1.0
 Wiltshire, South Gloucestershire  BDUK Phase 1  £             0.7
 Cambridgeshire, Peterborough  BDUK Phase 2  £             0.6
 Lincolnshire  BDUK Phase 1  £             0.6
 Greater Manchester  BDUK Phase 2  £             0.5
 Newcastle  BDUK Phase 1  £             0.4
 Total EU funding for local broadband projects   £         287.3

 

No matter how significant the contribution of the EU has been so far: according to Mr Gove, the rural divide in the UK will be solved only taking back control. To be more precise, though, the Secretary of State should have also clarified how the government intends to exert its control on the superfast broadband market. In particular:

  • What resources will be made available to compensate the loss of EU funding in support of digital inclusion?
  • What rules will be applied to foster investment and safeguard competition in the broadband market?
  • What regulation will be enforced to make public interventions more effective and efficient?

All these questions need a precise and clear answer, if we want to address the rural divide effectively. Don’t worry, Mr Gove… you have time until 29th March 2019!

brexit


Data about EU funding have been retrieved from:

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/erdf-programmes-progress-and-achievements#projects-funded-by-erdf, www.ispreview.co.uk, www.scottishcities.org.uk, http://www.superfastcornwall.org, www.digitalregion.co.uk/

L’eterno ritorno dello scorporo della rete

Estate 2013, primo giorno di lavoro in un’azienda di telecomunicazioni: mi viene chiesto di scrivere una nota sulla proposta di scorporo della rete di TIM.

Autunno 2015, primo mese di Dottorato in Inghilterra: un ex-collega in Agcom mi chiama per commentare la nuova proposta di Tim per la governance della rete.

Febbraio 2018, mi sto avvicinando alla fine del dottorato e – ormai ci sono abituato – leggo che TIM ha lanciato un nuovo piano per la separazione della rete.

Della mia breve ma intensa carriera nelle telecomunicazioni, lo scorporo della rete di TIM è stato un ritornello costante. In 5 anni, 3 piani sono stati avanzati e discussi in innumerevoli incontri, seminari, articoli, riunioni, etc. Nel frattempo, ho cambiato 3 lavori e traslocato 2 volte, ma Telecom è ancora il monopolista verticalmente integrato di sempre… Tanto rumore per nulla?

Certamente, in questi 5 anni sono cambiate tantissime altre cose nel mercato italiano:

Insomma, è indubbio che rispetto a 5 anni fa il mercato abbia fatto grandi progressi. Restano grandi questioni irrisolte, a partire dal digital divide che nega alle aree rurali una grande opportunità di sviluppo e ad una domanda di servizi digitali che stenta a consolidarsi. Ma siamo sicuri che la separazione della rete sia la risposta giusta a questi problemi?

Oggi i giornali riportano l’entusiasmo di politici e mercati finanziari per la proposta di TIM. Non vorrei guastare l’aria di festa, ma ho seri motivi per dubitare che la separazione della rete di TIM sia la soluzione a tutti i mali che frenano lo sviluppo digitale del paese. Infatti, l’esperienza di altri mercati dimostra, piuttosto, che qualsiasi forma di separazione della rete comporta più rogne che benefici.

In Nuova Zelanda e Australia, le Telecom locali sono state scorporate da anni e acquistate dai rispetti governi nell’ambito di iniziative pubbliche per lo sviluppo della banda ultralarga. Entrambi i progetti, però, si sono rivelati ben più complessi del previsto e a pagarne le spese è stato il contribuente.

Qualche numero? Nel 2010, il governo australiano ha acquistato la rete dell’ex-monopolista per 11 miliardi di dollari australiani (AUD) nel 2010. Sei anni dopo, ha assegnato allo stesso ex-monopolista un nuovo contratto da 1.6 miliardi di AUD per disegnare e costruire la nuova rete. Nel frattempo, i costi per realizzare una rete pubblica nazionale sono lievitati: il governo aveva programmato una spesa di 43 miliardi di AUD per una rete FTTH e invece ne spenderà 49 per una rete FTTC… non un grande affare per il contribuente australiano!

Nel Regno Unito, la separazione funzionale (introdotta nel 2005) ha favorito un’intensa concorrenza sui servizi, ma non ha stimolato alcuna concorrenza infrastrutturale su larga scala. I grandi operatori – nomi come Sky e Vodafone, per intenderci – non hanno realizzati reti alternative e BT ha investito, per ora, quasi esclusivamente in reti FTTC. Di recente, Ofcom ha imposto la separazione strutturale dell’ex-monopolista nel tentativo di promuovere ulteriori investimenti in reti FTTH. Di fatto, però, le poche reti FTTH attive nel paese sono state realizzate da operatori alternativi di piccole dimensioni (come discusso nel mio recente paper), per i quali la separazione strutturale di BT è più una minaccia che un’opportunità.

Visti i precedenti, AGCOM dovrebbe valutare con attenzione costi e benefici dello scorporo, tenendo conto del contesto competitivo nazionale. Quali sono le conseguenze di tali operazioni sugli investimenti privati già in atto? Quali le conseguenze sul piano del Governo? Se l’obiettivo (neppure troppo nascosto) è giungere alla fusione della rete di TIM con Open Fiber, allora il rischio di deprimere la dinamica competitiva che ha spinto gli investimenti negli ultimi anni diventa altissimo. 

Proprio quando la concorrenza tra reti stava iniziando a funzionare anche nel nostro paese! Per dirla à la Nietzsche: non è il nostro un eterno precipitare?

 

Eteerno ritorno

 

What I have learnt from my first (unsuccessful) grant application!

A couple of weeks ago, I submitted my first application for a research grant.

For those not into academia, it is worth mentioning that being able to attract funding has become a crucial skill for researchers and researchers-to-be.

Therefore, when I found this call for projects, I thought it could be a good opportunity for me to test my capabilities and, why not, try to get some funding for future research.

Unfortunately, my application was not successful.

No need to say I was a bit disappointed, as I believe our proposal was cool enough to be at least short-listed.

However, past is past. I did not get the grant, but I did get some useful experience… and here I am to share what I have learnt from my first unsuccessful grant application!

Grant applications are less complicated than expected.

Probably it is my Italian bias, but I was expecting tons of paperwork… I was pretty surprised and pleased to discover that the application form consisted only of two pages. The project had to be descripted in 500 words and this was indeed challenging. Yet formal requirements were minimal and this made everything easier and quicker.

Get as much information as you can

Reflecting in hindsight, I should have collected more information on the organisation awarding the grant. I wish I attended their networking events to understand what their main interests are and what projects they had been working on. This would have probably improved my application and made it more fit-for-purpose.

A good marriage requires time and effort.

One of the requirements of the call for projects was to involve at least another University and a company or SME. I thought that everyone would have been thrilled to join my project and collaborate – I mean, who would say no to the opportunity of getting some funds? The reality has been quite different. It took some time to identify and liaise with the right partners. This was probably the most challenging and formative experience, as it forced me to go out of my comfort zone and test my persuasion and negotiation skills. A great opportunity for a non-native English speaker!

Research is not cheap.

I had never thought about it until it came to estimate the costs of my research project. A lot of different factors needed to be considered while planning data collection. No, I am not talking about epistemology. It was all about asking the right questions to the right people. For example, how much is a pre-paid envelop? What is the cost of printing a glossy report? Information is key, again, and that you cannot find it in extant literature. So you just need to be a real researcher and search for the most convenient printing service in your city.

Feedback are less detailed than expected.

How many times have we been told to accept criticism and learn from others’ comments? Indeed, feedback can be extremely formative but, in this case, I was a bit disappointed. The response to my application was quite vague and I wish I had more detailed comments, to better understand the weaknesses of my project.

 

Overall, it was a positive experience despite the negative outcome. I am glad I tried, and I will definitely try again.

Now I have much clearer ideas of what to expect from a grant application and next time I will be able to manage the whole process more effectively. Hopefully I will get at least short-listed!

Fingers crossed and best luck to all the researchers out there applying for their first (or 100th ) grant!

Grant

Broadband for all, all for broadband

As part of my research, I have recently had an exciting trip to Melling. I suspect most of you do not know this tiny village in rural Lancashire. Neither did I, before discovering Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN).

For those who do not know B4RN, I would suggest to have a look here and here. To put it simply, it is a community project providing ultrafast broadband to connect remote and super-rural villages in the North West of England. Since 2011, people from the local communities teamed up to dig their own network. When I say dig, yes, I mean that! Volunteers are digging the ducts and posing the fibre – rather than just waiting for telcos or public authorities to do it.

Along with the physical roll-out, B4RN runs the ‘Come and Get IT Club’. Every Friday, people are welcome in their office in Melling to seek assistance with routers and tablets over a cup of tea. In a very friendly and passionate environment, anyone can learn the steps to set up a Vonage account or the tricks to boost the wi-fi signal indoor.

One Friday afternoon I joined the Club in Melling and it was one of the most fascinating experience of my researcher’s career. There is no better way to research such projects than being part of it for few hours. Therefore, I immersed myself in B4RN’s world for one day…. and I learn a lot, indeed. Now I can even self-install a fibre termination into my house –  I just need to wait for B4RN to come to Newcastle.

Most importantly, I had the chance to directly experience what communities can achieve when people share their expertise to pursue a communal goal. Listening to the stories of volunteers, employees and customers, I just realised that initiatives like B4RN can really empower local communities, by providing a faster connection and getting people actively involved in the digital revolution.

In the early 2000s, many communities wireless networks were established and scholars viewed those projects as an opportunity to promote both digital inclusion and socio-economic development. Unfortunately, only few of those initiatives have survived to the impediments of wi-fi technology and the difficulties of cooperative projects. However, B4RN proves that community-led networks still have a lot to say and to do. Policymakers and practitioners should carefully listen to such initiatives and learn some lessons.

First, innovative business models can make a difference and challenge our common sense of broadband investment.

Second, people are the most powerful asset when their potential is acknowledged and their contribution is valued.

Third, broadband is definitely not a luxury good for techies and urban elites. Anyone can get the most out of it, when provided with a decent connection and practical skills.

It may be too early to evaluate the long-term impact of B4RN. Nevertheless, this project is forcing policymakers, practitioners and researchers to rethink the dynamics in broadband market and consider alternative approaches to infrastructure delivery. Its implications might go beyond the diffusion of digital services and inspire a new model for social inclusion and economic development.

No need to say that I am excited and proud to research it!