Regional Broadband Consortium

Regional Broadband Consortium

Regional Broadband Consortia were created in 2000 under the auspices of what was then known as the Department for Education and Skills DfES National Grid for Learning (NGfL) programme. The NGfL title was subsequently dropped in favour of 'ICT in schools' and more latterly is referred to by the title Harnessing Technology from a recent department publication. Since 2007 the functions of the DfES have largely passed to the new Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) [] . Their purpose was to secure lower prices for broadband connections and services for schools by aggregating demand across a region and entering into region wide contracts.

2 Mbit/s

The RBCs collectively subscribed to a 2 Mbit/s standard for broadband, for which the origins in the 1990s are unclear. It is not the case as has been often alleged that the RBCs created or imposed this standard on English schools, though they were active in reinforcing and publicising the standard. Though it did not appear clearly stated in the NGfL funding guidance until 2003, this standard had been inherited from various fore-running projects including the People's Library Network. 2 Mbit/s was possibly selected with a view to encouraging the use of fibre to the site.

Despite frequent challenges, particularly from the telecommunications industry and the dominant national carrier, which held a monopoly outside the urban areas, the RBCs managed to defend the 2 Mbit/s standard against much cheaper emerging ADSL alternatives. Some providers were describing offerings as low as 150 kbit/s as broadband and when the lower relative costs of these highly contended products were taken into account, e.g. £360 pa rather than £3600 it was extremely difficult to persuade many educationalists and even many in the IT industry of the advantages of constantly available uncontended high-bandwidth.

History of the RBCs

In 1999 the one hundred and fifty or so upper tier English councils responsible for providing a schools' education service were provided with small sums of money (about £150 000 per region) to submit bids to create regional consortia in order to implement a schools broadband connectivity programme. "For an explanation of why these councils once were occasionally known as LEAs and are no longer see LEA and the attendant discussion." In the first wave, local authorities in eight regions were deemed to have submitted successful bids and granted a share of a total of £35 million of funding in 2000. There were two successful submissions in the North West, one from Cumberland and Lancashire and another from the majority of unitary authorities in the south of that region. Bids from the North-East, from Yorkshire and Humberside, from the East Midlands, East of England, South-East and South Western regions were also accepted. Unsuccessful bids were submitted by the West Midlands local authorities, by councils in the London area and those in the Bristol area.

By a mysterious process for which no one has ever taken responsibility, or dared to defend, seven councils which were not participants in successful bids were also funded. Thus was born surreptitiously the principle of 'opting out'. There were three of these in the North West, three in Yorkshire and Humber and one, Oxfordshire, in the South. Had the fourteen in the West Midlands, the thirty-three in London and the half dozen in the Bristol area been made aware of this back door procedure for obtaining funding there is little doubt that they too would have opted out of the DfES official process.

In the following year (2001), this funding farce was abandoned and all council education services received broadband grants as an element of their NGfL earmarked grant for ICT. So in 2001 new RBCs came into being in the West Midlands WMnet and London (LGfL), while the Bristol area councils joined South Western Grid. Participation in RBCs was strongly encouraged by the stipulation of the funding arrangements that the council's right to retain and spend the funds for broadband connectivity was conditional upon their participation in an RBC. Council's which did not participate in an RBC were required to "devolve" the funds to schools, though there was a lack of clarity on what that meant and even less clarity on whether anything like it actually happened.

The funding level had now (2001) risen to an aggregate £44 million pa. At a meeting on 27th September 2001, the leading NGfL officer, Doug Brown, formally requested the ten RBC managers to produce a plan for connecting up their networks. At least one of the RBCs WMnet had no network to connect, but the policy remained. After some discussion, the RBC managers agreed to "interconnect" their regional networks by peering with the universities' JANET network. Councils were required to connect either through membership of an RBC or through their own peering arrangements, though once again there were no mechanisms for monitoring compliance with these requirements and no penalties for those councils which refused to comply. These regional networks connected through the SuperJanet backbone form the communications infrastructure of the nationwide collaboration which came to be known as the National Education Network (NEN)

The 10 English RBCs

The RBCs have worked collaboratively since 2001 and have since been actively joined in their partnership by equivalent organizations in Northern Ireland (C2KN), Scotland (Glow) and Wales (NGfL Cymru). Key partners in RBC activities have been Becta and JANET.

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