The message in the medium

There aren’t that many famous Canadians, but Marshall McLuhan is one of them. He it was who in 1964 coined the phrase: “the medium is the message”. A salient sign of the times, in that he meant that the study of the medium itself, that we use to communicate with, will reveal the message of our times to ourselves.

So today’s diary item is about the medium, or more specifically, about the fibre optic medium that Broadband for the Allen Valleys (B4AV) has been working towards since their local launch in autumn 2017. Building on a model pioneered by a community enterprise (a registered, non-profit community benefit society in Lancashire, called Broadband for the Rural North, or B4RN), the new community scheme had raised over £100,000 in investment by August 2018. With an incredible flourish of publicity, a core management team and a small army of local volunteers, digging of trenches proceeded in earnest during the spring of this year.

Apparently, once the plastic conduit is laid in the trench, and covered over, the actual fibre optic cable can be blown through at a future time. Individual houses, meanwhile, where people have signed up, are being ‘connected’ to the network, in preparation for the ‘go-live’ eventual connection to the national grid network. The big lateral rib of the network, connecting roughly along the A686 between the two backbones running longitudinally down the country, is called the Zayo line, I understand. By May, progress was apparently ‘nearing completion’ on the project, as erroneously reported by the Hexham Courant at the time.

The ‘go-live’ connection to Openreach was widely promoted to be happening on the 31st of July, and of course, being an avid diarist of events in these valleys, I was eager to document this. How exciting it would be for the community! We’d signed up too, being good community-minded residents, though we had no spare money to invest and our heavy labour days are probably over in the volunteer sphere. Recognising just how far Sparty Lea is from the bigger connurbation of Catton, Langley and Allendale, however, we reckoned it would be a year or so hence until the new fibre optic gigabit network reached us, so we signed up on an 18 month contract with BT Ultra too. Safety backstops always make sense in the country.

The B4AV scheme was boosted earlier in the summer by a government sponsored voucher scheme which was to feed more investment into the local project, and contribute a £150 cash bonus to the subscribers, once they’d paid their money in. We duly registered for that as well. Community newsletters from B4AV continued to describe the many hours of volunteer effort, and how much physical work was actually being done. I recall one boast that the valleys had never seen such an heroic engineering effort (though I had to demur that perhaps the electrification of the valleys, or the sewage system taking care of Allendale and Catton’s waste, might have been rather more significant).

I guess McLuhan’s message is never more true than it is today, in so many more ways than he could have imagined back in the lmid-20th century. We have our websites, our facebook, our instagrams and twitter feeds. Our immediate announcements, email lists, newsletters and blog subscriptions. We’re inundated with information at our fingertips, our minds often metaphorically drowning in it.

So when the medium shuts down, does that also convey information? We’re easily tempted to think that it does; 31st July came and I waited. No news.

After I sent out an enquiring email, I did get a quick individual reply: the date’s been put back to sometime in September; it’s a problem at the Zayo end. So fine and so reported in the diary after the North of Tyne’s mayoral visit. Well, we’re sitting cheerfully at home watching films streamed through our BT Ultra connection; we’re not bothered, after all. So I waited patiently for some further public notice, but September came and went. October came and went. B4AV’s Community Newsletters continued to circulate extolling the virtues of the incipient broadband, describing the digging and laying of plastic pipe to carry the fibre optic cable, ensuring details of the government’s voucher scheme were made available to registrants. But umm, what about the live connection?

I wrote back towards the end of October. A meeting with B4RN was scheduled for the morrow, and they hoped to be able to update me thereafter. But nothing was forthcoming. Wrote again mid-November. Searched earnestly through the B4AV website news page, their facebook page, their blog. A week ago I received personal email confirmation that the core management team actually didn’t know when the network might be going live. I was relieved and delighted when further clarification came in the latest Community Newsletter, out on Saturday the 23rd November, with public news about ‘Going Live’. B4AV are “confident that we can lay the duct to complete the connections to Zayo by the end of the year, ready for B4RN to blow in the core fibre and then turn on our network in the new year.” The challenges with wayleaves have been addressed, and the project is moving forward enthusiastically. It’s definitely a solace to have some news about this, both in terms of identifying the challenges with Openreach that caused the missed connection on 31st July, and in terms of the facilitation of the direct Zayo connections at Langley and Whitfield. Maybe the live connection, when it comes, will rate an appendix to this year’s diary! That will be a pleasure!

It won’t hurt us to be patient; as I say, our own broadband connection is perfectly adequate for our needs. And good luck to the B4AV project, of course, and best wishes too; we’ve been delighted to support it as subscribers — no cash outlay yet! I’m sure that the earnest volunteers who’ve spent countless (well, getting on for thousands, anyway) person-hours on this project already are firm believers in the ethos attributed to Alisdair Gray, who also referenced Dennis Lee, and which I might paraphrase as, ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better community.’

And I do hope that a continuing core value of transparency will have been embedded in that future, better community. When the new fibre optic network goes live, soon, then the medium really will be the message.

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