With the target of offering superfast broadband connections to 84% of homes and businesses in the Highlands and Islands within sight, what will happen to those not already covered by the programme?
Being born and bred in the Highlands in the 1980s and 1990s brought with it some familiar sounds: the mewing call of a buzzard as it flew overhead; the blast of the locomotive’s whistle on the Strathspey steam railway as it passed through Aviemore; and the dulcet tones of continuity announcer Kate Fraser as she introduced the evening’s programmes on Grampian TV.
Yet few sounds evoke such strong childhood memories as the noise of a modem trying to reach the internet through a dial-up connection. The irritating pings, clicks and whistles as the computer attempted to send and receive signals down a phone line filled many long hours in the early days of the internet.
Fast-forward 20 years and sadly the situation hasn’t changed for some businesses in the North of Scotland. While towns like Nairn, Tain and Wick have already had their infrastructure upgraded to handle superfast broadband, for some businesses and households in the Highlands and Islands the idea of moving beyond standard broadband or even just dial-up connections sometimes feels like it’s still just a distant dream.
“Broadband is a sore point,” admits Keith Whittles, who has run Whittles Publishing from Caithness for the past 30 years. “We work with people all over the world and send huge files to America, Australia and India, and we receive huge files from them.
“At the moment, the broadband here is pretty mediocre for downloads and appalling for uploads. If we’ve got a 400MB file to send then we have to leave it running overnight.
“There is so much talk from the politicians about improving broadband but so little is done. Half the time it’s just lip-service; I don’t think there’s a will to do it. Any government that’s really serious about developing the economy of rural area should have sorted broadband ages ago.”
Mr Whittles is on the verge of being connected to superfast broadband within the coming weeks, but he isn’t the only business person who wants to see more action on broadband speeds. “Report after report has underlined that a good broadband connection is a prerequisite for a successful modern business,” explains David Richardson, the Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB’s) development manager for the Highlands and Islands.
“Every industry is changing as a consequence of digital technologies. It is not an add-on but an essential. Undoubtedly the quality of broadband coverage in the Highlands and Islands is heading in the right direction, but the key question is whether it is improving fast enough?
“Scottish firms that can’t currently get access to superfast are understandably frustrated. One can’t imagine that many firms in the industries of the future would start-up in an area without good mobile or broadband.
“Similarly, if we are to prevent the forecast decline in many rural Highland secondary school rolls, then we’ll need to make many of our communities more attractive by improving their connectivity.”
It’s not just small businesses that are concerned about broadband either. “Digital connectivity is increasingly important for our business and for the Scotch whisky industry generally,” explains Ewan Andrew, supply director at Diageo, Scotland’s largest whisky distiller and the owner of brands including Bell’s, J&B and Johnnie Walker.
“We have 28 malt whisky distilleries and the majority of those are in rural communities in the Highlands and Islands, which currently have poor access to both broadband and mobile connectivity. We are investing in new communications technology to enhance our productivity as a business, but we are restricted in bringing that to many of our rural sites because the digital infrastructure simply isn’t always there to support it.
“We also welcome around 400,000 visitors to our distillery visitor centres each year and they expect to be able to connect and to share their experiences on social media, but currently they often can’t do that because of the lack of connectivity. Building the rural digital infrastructure will allow those visitors to share their experiences and help sell Scotch and Scotland to the world.”
So what’s being done to bring superfast broadband to the Highlands and Islands? Back in 2013, Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) signed a deal with telecommunications giant BT to give 84% of the homes and businesses in region access to superfast broadband by the end of 2016.
The cost of the project is £145.8million, with the public sector contributing £126.4million through HIE, the Scottish Government, the UK Government Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and the seven local authorities in the region, while BT makes up the balance.
“We’re certainly on course to hit our target,” says Stuart Robertson, director of the Digital Highlands & Islands programme at HIE. “We’re around about the 127,000 premises-mark now, so that works out at around 72%.”
Mr Roberston expects the programme will reach a couple of percentage points above the 84% target because the take-up rate has been so high, meaning that BT has pumped extra money into the project. When the project started in 2013, only 4% of premises in the region could receive superfast broadband.
“In the Highlands and Islands we started way behind everyone else in that BT’s commercial roll-out was only going to reach about 21% of premises, compared with about 71% in the rest of Scotland,” says Mr Robertson. To catch up, the programme had to install “backhaul infrastructure” of fibre-optic cables on both the mainland and on the seabed to connect to the islands.
Fibre-optic cables send a beam of light along a glass tube to carry information instead of sending data down traditional copper wires as electrical signals. Using this technology allows faster speeds for sending and receiving emails, downloading and uploading files, and accessing websites.
Mr Robertson describes the backhaul system as “like a motorway network of high-speed fibres”. Once the main motorway is in place, engineers then have to lay a spine of fibre-optic cables to connect the main truck to individual “cabinets” – known as “fibre to the cabinet” or FTTC. The existing copper wire telephone lines then connect the cabinet to each house or business.
In towns and cities, cabinets typically serve streets or groups of streets. Some large office blocks or individual businesses that use lots of data will even lay optical fibres from those cabinets to their own buildings – known as “fibre to the premises” or FTTP.
“Cabinets are very good for clusters of homes and the size of those clusters has been continually falling,” explains Mr Robertson. “We’re now seeing cabinets being put in to cater for 20 or 25 homes, when they were just for perhaps 100 homes when we started. BT is looking at ways of moving down to smaller clusters of perhaps ten homes.”
Looking back over the first phase, Robert Thorburn, programme manager at BT, says: “Delivering the subsea programme was extremely challenging. Watching the cable arrive in Stornoway was massively exciting. That was the way to get connectivity onto the Western Isles for the first time. We saw the delight on the faces of the local people.
“What’s interesting is how people’s views and thoughts have changed,” he adds. “When we started the programme, everyone was saying ‘You’ll not doing anything’. Now they’re asking ‘When can I get it?’ We still get questions from people who can’t get it, and that’s the challenge that we all face.”
With the 84% target within sight, thoughts are turning to how the remaining 16% of premises can be offered superfast broadband. Last month the UK Government received state aid approval from Brussels for the second phase of the superfast broadband project, which is expected to begin next year.
The second phase will need to be put out to tender, but is expected to include a roll-out of further optical fibres. The tender documents will be technology-neutral though, so bidders might include other technologies in their pitches, such as satellite links or permanent wireless, which has already been used by some projects under the Community Broadband Scotland initiative, a project to help reach the final 5 per cent of homes and businesses in isolated locations.
Mr Robertson points to a number of potential sources of funding for further roll-outs of superfast broadband, including European Union money for the Highlands and Islands, the Inverness City-Region Deal, and further cash from DCMS matched by the Scottish Government.
Following last month’s Scottish Parliament elections, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon upped the game on broadband by appointing Inverness & Nairn MSP Fergus Ewing as the first cabinet secretary for the rural economy and connectivity. As well as sticking “connectivity” in his title, she also gave Mr Ewing responsibility for “100% broadband” as part of his job description.
In his maiden speech in Holyrood after being named as cabinet secretary for economy, jobs and fair work, Keith Brown unveiled a commitment to full coverage, fulfilling the Scottish National Party’s manifesto promise. “Our digital superfast broadband programme is on track to deliver 95% coverage by the end of 2017, and additional public investment will help to achieve our ambition of 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage by 2021,” he said.
“We await details of how they propose that will be funded, because I don’t think there’s enough funding available at the moment to actually get to that,” noted Mr Robertson from HIE.
“It is absolutely vital that the Scottish Government honours this commitment,” adds Mr Richardson from FSB Scotland.
John Cooke, infrastructure policy specialist and founder of Marschal Cooke Consulting said: “When Nicola Sturgeon announced the target of making superfast broadband available to 100% of Scottish premises, she got loud cheers from delegates at the SNP Spring Conference. The noise from telecoms industry folk, on the other hand, was a sharp intake of breath – make no mistake, this is a stretching target.
“But is is achievable. The technology exists. What’s needed is political will – which is there – and a pile of cash. It will also need an innovative approach to how public funds are used, and some regulatory change. A quick win would be to address the way business rates apply to fibre, which penalises connections to remote communities.
“I think the Scottish Government will deliver on its manifesto commitment. You can get superfast broadband in rural Finland, heavily forested and with a population density even less than Scotland’s. If they can do it there, so can we.”