I have been studying community networks – internet networks built, owned, and operated by local communities – since 2018. There is a global community network movement of sorts, but I started this research with one close to “home”, in the rural Northwest of England. Broadband 4 the Rural North started with a handful of tenacious rural residents, who were fed up with their lack of internet connectivity and the unfulfilled promises of England’s leading telecommunications providers to reach their rural homes. They formed a community benefit society, raised funds themselves, and built the fastest and most affordable fibre-optic network in the country, with volunteers in every village mapping the routes and digging the ditches for the cable.
During the pandemic, communities in Lancashire banded together, using human networks they had developed while building the internet network for B4RN to get supplies to people who needed them. They also ran an online “Computer Club” via Zoom to stay connected and offer technical support to B4RN members.
I’ve done hours and hours of interviews and observations with B4RN, and I finally put together a podcast with some of the audio I’ve collected over the years. GenderIT gave me the excuse and the opportunity, as part of a great collection on community resilience during the pandemic. In this recording, I talk mainly about the volunteer-led B4RN Computer Club – how it has evolved from the in-person Computer Club hosted every Friday at their modest headquarters in Melling, Lancashire, into an online format during the pandemic, and how the club helps bridge the digital divide by sharing knowledge with local people about how to make the most of their internet connections.
I wanted to introduce listeners to these people I’ve gotten to know over the last few years – not just their dogged commitment to helping people get online and feel confident about it, but also their humour and camaraderie. The dynamic in these Computer Club meetings shows how B4RN is no ordinary telco.