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Broadened horizons

Progress is being made in connecting rural areas to fast broadband, reports Nick Morgan, but some obstacles are difficult to remove.

We wrote in issue 21 about the growing importance of connectivity and how there is considerable disparity between regions across the UK.

Figures from Ofcom show that among the slower average connection speeds in Scotland, Orkney and Shetland have 31.1 Mbit/s and ross, Skye and Lochaber come in at 31.4Mbit/s. These in reality are decent speeds, above Government UK-wide targets of at least 30Mbit/s. But they are well below what Ofcom says is the average, at 64Mbit/s, a figure that itself shows we have come a long way since the 56kbit/s days of the 1990s.

While such figures give an indication of what’s possible in a given area, anyone looking to move to a specific postcode needs to do their due diligence. Speeds vary greatly even within small areas and are generally faster in cities and towns than in rural areas.

Fast broadband is a huge issue for those working from home during lockdown and, as the economy seems to be moving unstoppably towards remote working, it’s vital that those in rural areas have the access they need to do their job.

Andrew Maclaren and Lorna Philip of Aberdeen University wrote: “rural information and communications technology infrastructure supporting reasonable upload/download speeds and reliable connections is far from universal … as the pandemic took hold across the world … and highlighted existing territorial divides and the need for rural places to become more digitally connected.”

Why do we appear to be behind other European countries when it comes to effective rollout of high-speed broadband? There doesn’t appear to be any one factor to blame but rather a multitude of contributing issues – such as the condition and adaptability of the existing network, available contractual labour, legislation, consents, geography and landscape.

There are some clever ways to get around what seems to be the preference for hard connections via cabling, which Callum Woods refers to in his article on telecoms (page 10). Where communities are too remote for fixed lines, satellites are doing the job.

The slow progress made in awarding contracts for fibre broadband rollout became the subject of a legal challenge to the Scottish Government by one company tendering to deliver the necessary installations. We understand this case was settled – BT remains responsible for delivering each of the three lots allocated in Scotland. As a UK company with an almost 200-year history, it should know how to improve the network.

That said, new fibre cables, especially in rural areas, are either buried very close to the surface or run on top of verges, presenting a possible impediment to lasting, effective communication. However, the managing director of Openreach, a BT subsidiary that runs the UK’s digital network, said in December: “Openreach has the experience, people and passion to bring digital transformation to the very hardest-to-reach places … and the build in the North [of Scotland], with its wild and beautiful land and seascapes, will bring new challenges to test our engineering inventiveness.”

Both Governments are still aiming to have 100% of the UK kitted out with superfast broadband and Holyrood now states 95% of premises in Scotland can now benefit from faster speeds, though is still offering improvement grants in the form of vouchers. I just wonder how many of us feel they sit within the other 5%.