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Rural broadband: The need for speed

Large parts of Scotland risk being left behind because they lack a fast broadband connection. Rachel Russell reports on the digital divide affecting rural areas.

For most people, a quality internet connection has moved in one generation from being a luxurious novelty to an absolute necessity. 

Technical advances mean not everyone must occupy a costly office to do productive work. Meetings are conducted in the cloud. Many employees prefer to work from home. 

In personal finance, shopping, interactions with officialdom, education, healthcare and of course business, the world has moved online. And as high-street bank closures show, we often have no choice but to go online. Increasingly, much of this activity requires a high-speed connection. 

Digital Accessibility

In December, the Westminster Government, which oversees digital accessibility, pledged that everyone in the UK would have ‘high-speed broadband’ of 10 Mbps by 2020 under a regulatory Universal Service Obligation (USO). But not everyone thinks 10 Mbps – deemed by the industry regulator Ofcom as meeting the requirements of an average family – qualifies as high speed when, for example, commercial transactions and regulatory paperwork are being withdrawn from rural businesses. 

While broadband is a policy area reserved to Westminster, there are disagreements between London and Edinburgh on how best to address the problem given Scotland’s mountainous terrain and large areas inhabited by small populations. 

The Digital Divide

Britain’s fixed-line broadband is largely delivered through the old telephone network. For many, voice and data are still carried via copper wire and download speeds are influenced by distance from local street cabinets. If the ‘final mile’ exceeds 1.2km, superfast broadband can’t be delivered. That’s less a problem in urban areas where large parts of the network are being progressively replaced by fibre-optic cable, enabling high speeds to multiple addresses. But it’s a big problem for remoter, rural areas and in large parts of Scotland especially. 

Does this matter? Yes, according to research by Lorna Philip of the University of Aberdeen and her colleagues. They write in a paper entitled The Digital Divide:

The range of activities routinely undertaken online is increasing, the data requirements of many applications and websites are growing and home broadband is now expected to support multiple device-owning and simultaneous-user households. A broadband service that meets these expectations is not available to all British households.

Infrastructure improvements bringing fast broadband to consumers have concentrated on densely populated urban areas, creating a ‘two-speed Britain’. And, as the research finds, country dwellers are just as keen on fast broadband as city folk. 

The challenges involved in getting the ‘final few’ properly connected will require alternative technologies – either mobile or satellite. But despite the rapid take-up of mobile phones in recent years, they have failed to provide an alternative for Scottish homes and businesses. Dr Philip’s report says mobile infrastructure is best across England and worst in Scotland, especially in rural areas.

Across almost a quarter of rural Scotland there is no reliable 2G signal from any operator. Almost half of rural Scotland does not have a reliable 3G signal from any operator. Across half of the Scottish land mass it is impossible to be online, on the move, unless the user finds a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Satellite may be part of the answer but its line quality has yet to match superfast fixed-line services, and latency – delay in sending and receiving data – remains a problem. Also, unlimited download allowances are rare, making this a potentially expensive service. If these limitations can be overcome satellite would be a credible alternative for those who cannot be served by conventional fixed broadband. 

Large-scale investment is needed if less concentrated populations are not to miss out on a digital future. While Ofcom and BT have spent two years fighting over how to fix Britain’s creaking broadband network, the Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica spends €8bn a year on capital expenditure compared to BT’s £3.5bn capex bill last year. 

But with Government facing infrastructure priorities such as healthcare, housing and the controversial HS2 railway, any major public spending boost looks unlikely. 

Yet according to Dr Philip, Britain will suffer without investment in a range of technologies. “Tackling rural digital divides and future-proofing investments in rural digital infrastructure are essential to ensure that rural communities and businesses can fully engage in an increasingly digital society. 

A variety of connectivity methods will be required to bring fast broadband to all premises in rural areas including, for example, satellite and fixed wireless and, potentially, mobile broadband running on proposed 5G mobile phone networks. 

Government will have a role to play in ensuring alternative technologies are priced competitively to ensure rural consumers need not overpay. Continued public investment will remain necessary to ensure that sparsely populated areas are not left further behind as developments in digital telecommunications continue apace.

 

Bringing Fast Internet To Farming Communities

One man fighting to get people and businesses connected is focusing on a mix of fibre-optic broadband and mobile technology to bring large parts of eastern Scotland into the fast-digital age.

Engineer David Short realised better connections were needed as he built his business, DS electrical, to help farmers control their wind turbines and biomass boilers remotely, using smart phones.

Angus WISP – Wireless Internet Service Provider – provides broadband speeds of 40 Mbps and more, in even the most difficult to access areas, through a combination of fibre-optic and a network of landbased repeater stations that pass on signals using wireless technology.

The methods aren’t new but, according to Mr Short, delivering a fast, reliable service relies on local knowledge and bringing communities together so they can prioritise their needs and retain control. The company manufactures its own masts and handles on-site welding, painting, concreting, software, set-up, commissioning and upkeep.

Some repeaters are powered by wind turbines. Local involvement means that communities can get together to buy fast broadband at a fraction of the price of fixed-line infrastructure, at much lower monthly charges than satellite and without the line delay that comes with it.

The mobile-cable formula is being rolled out further north by Marykirk.com and by similar initiatives in other parts of rural Scotland.

“For agricultural communities, digital connections are too important to be entrusted to large telecom providers – it’s not worthwhile digging up miles of road to build the necessary infrastructure,” said Mr Short, whose company recently connected 50 properties at Glen Clova in the Cairngorms.