Stop 22 of the Awards Tour was a whistle-stop mini-tour of the Allen Valleys!
The INCA and ISPA trophies – won last year – are doing the rounds of volunteers from communities who have got the job done laying the B4RN gigabit full fibre broadband network over the last decade.
The prizes went to the Northeast for the first time – to the cabinets at Spartylea, Catton and Whitfield. All the volunteers we met also received coveted MBE Awards (Member of the B4RN Empire) as well as Spade Awards.
A trio of B4RN volunteers stopped for a picture with the awards and a chat at Spartylea – Mike Robinson, Graham Tuitin and Malcolm Barnes.
Mike Robinson has led the volunteer effort throughout the Allen Valleys. He’s heading towards helping get 400 properties connected.
Mike told us why he’s volunteered: “I moved here and discovered the internet was really bad. I moved my business out here and discovered the internet was really, really bad! I had to go to Newcastle [a two-hour round trip] to upload things. I spoke to the incumbent provider and was quoted £20,000 for decent broadband. That was a non-starter!”
A few years later on, and Mike and many others are now on B4RN. He explained the difference it has made to him: “I’ve got a lot more friends than before – meeting all these other people. At home, there’s three of us of who work from home with intensive computer usage. One’s a games designer. He’s got a faster connection here than the company he works for!”
Mike added the whole community is benefiting: “Allendale School – they have 20 computers in their computer room. Before B4RN, they could only ever use ten of them online at the same time. Now they don’t even notice, the connectivity is just there.”
And does Mike have any advice for B4RN groups just starting out… “Have second thoughts! [Laughs] But no, it’s worth it in the end.”
Three more B4RN volunteers gathered for a snap with the trophies and to look back on their efforts at Catton – Brian Bell, Steve Harrison and Fenwick Kirton-Darling.
Steve says parts of the Allen Valleys were woefully underserved when it came to connectivity: “Every time there was a gale or a storm it was down. It would take them weeks to come out and fix it.
“I do a lot of work from home. Big files downloading would take WEEKS sometimes as I’d have to do them over and over and over again.
“I had 0.76Mbps. Now it’s 995Mbps.”
Brian mulled over why he volunteered: “I quite enjoy it. The technical side is quite interesting. It’s a different world now. B4RN has so many good ideas on how to do things.
“We’ve lived here for years, nobody meets anybody. Now we’re connecting everybody. We can’t go anywhere without somebody tooting their horn.
“We don’t do it for any other reason than meeting people and helping the community – it’s just been fun!”
Brian closed with the open secret that the B4RN army marches on its stomach: “Customers would say ‘do we pay you?’ and I’d say no, just cheese scones will do.”
Another trinity of B4RN volunteers had their photographs with the awards and reflected on their B4RN project at Whitfield – Polly & John Prendiville and Brian Fiddler.
Polly was rather blunt about why they got involved with B4RN: “The fact that we had such c**p broadband! Half the time we couldn’t send an email!”
She added it was difficult to convince people the difference B4RN would make: “It’s okay once somebody gets it and they realise how good it is. I think there was a lot of doubt at the beginning. It looks ‘too good to be true’ – it’s far better and it’s cheaper. Once one or two folks got it and it started working, everybody wanted it!”
John then chipped in: “It was the children who were the drivers [during the pandemic]. When they had to work from home or do their school work… that was a huge advantage. They started saying ‘oh yeah, we’d like that!'”
Brian mused on the social aspect of B4RN: “I would never have met the number of people. I now know everybody in the Valley, hopefully for good reasons! It’s embedded me in my community much more quickly than I’d ever have managed. Where we are broadband’s so poor so it’s a game-changer, people are very, very pleased to actually have a reliable service.”
B4RN’s Project Coordinator, Hannah Robinson, came along for this stretch of the Awards Tour and said: “I’ve been with the Allen Valleys for two years now. We’ve seen it right through so ‘thank you’ for the volunteers’ efforts and making my life a little bit easier by working with me to get everybody on!”
Allen Valleys Picture Special