Dr Andrew Muir knows all about the challenges of life in a remote community. Every Sunday evening from the age of 11 he had to board the bus in the village of Achiltibuie on Scotland’s north-west coast for a 70-mile journey to the opposite side of Scotland to attend the nearest secondary school, Dingwall Academy, returning home on Friday evening.
Now, as founding director of telecommunications consultancy FarrPoint, he is playing a key role in linking remote businesses and dwellers in the Highlands and Islands with the rest of the world through the power of the internet.
It is something he champions because he says: “Remote communities have to get involved in all sorts of different projects to help their community like trying to keep the local hall going, the local school going, the local petrol pumps going. The community gets tasked with a lot of self-promotion and I am of the opinion they shouldn’t have to also think about how they are going to have to get broadband provided. That is now an essential service that should just be available to all, no matter where.”
After studying at Edinburgh and working in the capital running the Scottish office of an international telecoms consultancy, Mr Muir returned to his native Achiltibuie in the same role.
“I was an early pioneer of what they used to call telecrofting,” he said. “I was up there working on various projects around the world and it was workable then because the telecoms wasn’t too far behind the curve.
“I had ISDN installed and then satellite broadband installed but as ADSL (now the main broadband technology) began to be rolled out across the country, but not to places like Achiltibuie, the gap started to widen and so it became harder to operate.”
He said that commercial telecom companies obviously focused on provision to the most heavily populated areas and the Highlands and Islands, although covering more than half of Scotland’s land mass, has only around 450,000 residents (8.5% of the Scottish total) or 11 people per sq km, compared to 127 people per sq km in the rest of Scotland.
“Broadband has got faster and faster and in more heavily populated areas people are so used to it they just don’t think about it; and they also assume they will get decent mobile coverage, but things certainly haven’t kept up in the rural areas.”
That was a contributory factor to Mr Muir returning to Edinburgh where he set up FarrPoint in 2008.
The company now advises the public and private sectors on networking technology projects, including the Scottish Government and other bodies on broadband projects, and has recently advised Highlands and Islands Enterprise on the procurement process for the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme, funded by the UK and Scottish governments. This project aims to provide fibre based broadband infrastructure to areas not covered by commercial deployment and combined with commercial roll-out plans, around 84% of premises across the Highlands and Islands will have access to fibre based broadband by the end of 2016.
They are also advisers to Community Broadband Scotland which is tasked with finding solutions for those locations which won’t be covered by the main BT project.
Mr Muir explained that while there might be a desire to supply the most remote areas first, a network had to be designed from the centre out.
“One of the significant things about this project is it is putting in place the core infrastructure, the backbone network for the Highlands and Islands. In the past, significant areas have been connected to the bigger BT network by radio links, especially in the west coast because it is a cheaper way of doing it.
“This project is putting more fibre optic in the ground providing a platform on which everything else can then be built.
“It will replace some of the radio and it will make things a lot more resilient and less prone to failure, and it will give a greater range of services and faster services. It will also connect a lot of the islands for the first time by fibre. Up to now, the Western Isles have been connected by long radio links from the mainland with limited capacity but there will now be subsea fibre links which will be a major step forward for these communities.
“The project will improve connectivity for everyone, including the public sector.”
He explained that it would allow local authorities, hospitals and GPs to link into SWAN (Scottish Wide Area Network) – a new single, secure public services communications network across Scotland which FarrPoint also advised on.
It would also enable existing businesses to keep pace with developments and assist inward investment.
“We run a small business and one of the first things you would absolutely look at is ‘Can I get good connectivity?’ and if you can’t get good connectivity you just wouldn’t base your business there.
“This development in connectivity is now going to open up a lot of areas throughout the Highlands and Islands for business and so it will be a major benefit.
“It’s not only businesses but the people who work in them want good broadband.
“When people are buying houses now as well as checking things like the local schools they check what kind of connectivity they will have.
“If I’m in a broadband hole my kids aren’t going to be happy and I know I wouldn’t be happy so it is a significant feature.”
Ironically, although Mr Muir is helping bring faster broadband to thousands of businesses and homes in the Highlands, it will not yet reach his beloved Achiltibuie.
“It is not included at the moment but this current project is a stepping stone and it is recognised it is not going to get everywhere. Achiltibuie is one of the places it might not cover, but there are new technologies coming out and different models which should extend faster broadband into even more rural areas. If that doesn’t work Community Broadband Scotland has a number of advisers who are working with very rural communities to look at their options if they can’t get covered by mainstream suppliers.
“The aim is that all communities will soon have good broadband connectivity and that is the direction that the Scottish Government is going and this is a major step towards that, but it is not the only step.”
The Carse Industrial Estate, on the north-west side of Inverness, is one of the first areas able to access fibre broadband services through the £146million public partnership Digital Highlands and Islands Project and motor dealer Dicksons is benefiting.
The march of technology is highly visible in the motor industry with vehicles reflecting our reliance on electronics for safety and efficiency, but sales director Jim MacKenzie said that the website is now the shop front.
“Even before people come to see us they know what they want, what it will cost and may even have ‘chatted’ with us online,” he said.
“For those living some distance from the city it’s more convenient to do business this way. We can even look at initial valuations for trade-ins from photos customers send direct from their smart phones.
“We are looking at introducing iPads for staff to use as they walk around with customers looking at cars.
“We’d like to move on from sitting people at a desk as we put information into a computer.”
Until broadband was introduced to Ullapool, Noel Hawkins, who was working in London in IT, was unable to return to the Highlands.
He now runs MacraeMedia from his home town but says that being so distant from other businesses and potential custom means the remote parts of the Highlands are disadvantaged against urban and city businesses.
However, a reliable high-speed broadband service when it comes will allow them to communicate and compete online – and in turn provide greater offline opportunities.
MacraeMedia develops and promotes websites and online sales/services and slow and poor connection speeds can threaten important projects and deadlines, limit some activities and can make it a cumbersome process.
“Faster broadband should enable greater existing use and allow media streaming etc, which in turn will boost work and income as well as bringing social and educational benefits,” he said.
“I see faster broadband offering my own business the opportunity to encourage more businesses online and greater use of online promotion.
“We will be able to use online sales for the community, crafts and produce which have fallen behind much of the UK despite being unique and high quality and with the potential to benefit most from a worldwide market.”