Yesterday B4RN hosted its fourth AGM in the large workshop at its premises in Melling. Around 160 guests including 124 shareholders were present and were welcomed by director Monica Lee, who introduced CEO Barry Forde MBE, who gave a presentation on the progress of the company.
Barry’s presentation included details of the new staff, new vehicles and new premises that have all been taken on in the past year. Also news of the network’s substantial expansion with nodes (service cabinets) coming live in Halton, Whittington, Cantsfield, Bentham, Caton, Tunstall, Melling and Claughton. The year also saw B4RN’s thousandth connection, its millionth share, a visit from HRH Prince Charles and two MBEs!
B4RN remains the fastest and best Internet provider, with pricing far below the competition with a connected coverage area stretching up the Lune Valley from Halton to Whittington, west across the M6 to the Yealands, east as far as Keasden in the Yorkshire Dales, and through the Forest of Bowland stretching as far as Street.
Starting with only 58 connections in 2012/13, B4RN’s connection rate has steadily risen to a current average of about 100 new connections per month. With around 800km of core network installed, signup in the communities serviced by B4RN averages 65%.
The company has been almost entirely community funded with 778 shareholders now holding a total of £1.5 million in shares with an additional £1 million loaned to the company from the community.
A request for VoIP services was raised by one member, as this was one of the early aims of B4RN. Barry answered that B4RN could probably not be competitive on cost versus larger competitors, but this may be worth reconsidering in future years, particularly if members were keen for it to be pursued.
Code powers were raised by another member, asking how B4RN’s application had progressed. Barry replied that February or March should see code powers granted to B4RN but the major delay on road crossings is usually due to contractors who give preferential treatment to larger clients. Barry explained the intention to hire more staff this year who will be licensed for undertaking road cuts, thus relieving this bottleneck and improving the quality and responsiveness of this work.
The ability to cover interest on shares was queried. Barry replied that funds for the repayment of loans and the payment of interest on shares are set aside to cover these.
In answer to a question about the geographical limits of the expansion of B4RN, Barry replied that most new areas are managing their own local investment, route-planning and volunteering very well. These new communities are very keen to promote the core values of B4RN on their patch. Barry confirmed that B4RN are not financially driven to expand the network, and that it is simply a case of ‘help thy neighbour’… in this case B4RN helping further communities to help themselves.
A question concerning network resilience was raised. Barry confirmed that every node (service cabinet) will have two routes connecting it so that there is a backup connection in case of damage to one of the routes. This is one of the factors that makes B4RN more resilient than its competitors. Barry also confirmed that United Utilities have been very forthcoming in recent discussions regarding taking a route across their river Lune ‘pipe bridge’ just south of Kirkby Lonsdale – thus forming added resilience for nodes nodes at Whittington and Cowan Bridge.
The status of the management committee was queried and Barry clarified that this has now been dissolved with committee members now taking more formalised roles on the board of directors or as employees. Two further groups have been formed to help support the future expansion of B4RN: 1) a co-ordination committee that will deal with the practical aspects of network build, and 2) an as yet unnamed group that will meet to discuss the aims of the company and its place in the community.
Directors Barry Forde and Monica Lee were re-elected and new directors Chris Carr and Peter Hearne were elected to join them. Barry explained how B4RN’s rules state that directors can only be from the B4RN community and must have been actively involved in helping B4RN achieve its stated goals. Barry also confirmed that all directors hold their posts as volunteers and that this is intended to be the case permanently as part of B4RN’s community ethos.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO CELEBRATE
Most of the shareholders present at the AGM stayed afterwards to speak with the friends and colleagues over tea and biscuits. Many are actively digging and used the opportunity to discuss practical considerations, but many others present were from communities that finished their connections some time ago. All enjoyed catching up with the many other ‘b4rnstormers’ they’ve met from neighbouring communities while working on the project.