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Connecting communities

Neil Watt | 22 Jul 2015 | Comments

Many of us take basic broadband connectivity for granted, especially if we live in a city supported by all the infrastructure we need to get online. But given the many benefits offered by the internet, how do people access these kinds of services if they live in particularly out of the way places?

That is a problem faced by the population of the Scottish Highlands and Islands – one of the most remote locations in Europe. And I believe the answer to that question has created a blueprint that can be applied to remote communities across the world.

We have been working with the region’s community and economic development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) for over a decade, supporting work to bring better broadband access to remote communities. In 2005, the Connected Communities project, brought broadband services to people based in remote villages and townships throughout the Western Isles of Scotland.

When we first looked at that project, the task had seemed pretty daunting. ADSL services were not available and the sparsely populated area presented challenges to traditional radio networks as the region is also mountainous, with hills and glens blocking traditional line of sight wireless connections.

However, at that time Ofcom had just reorganised the radio spectrum and it was clear that the 5.8GHz spectrum – notable for providing cost-effective high-bandwidth radio access – would prove an efficient and relatively inexpensive system to allow broadband connectivity despite the mountainous terrain. This spectrum had been used in other countries to provide connectivity to people’s homes, so the concept had been proven, albeit on a smaller scale. The Connected Communities project was one of the first to get Ofcom approval for its use and it ultimately became one of the first large-scale deployments of broadband fixed wireless access using this radio spectrum.

The work across the Western Isles was a great success in terms of coverage with a network footprint covering 97 per cent of the population. Importantly, the project also served as a proof of concept.

Ten years later, we are again working with HIE on two projects which will change the shape of connectivity for the region – the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband Project (DSSB) and Community Broadband Scotland (CBS).

These projects face the same challenges as the original Connected Communities Broadband project – such as the dramatic geography and disparate population of the Highlands and Islands.

DSSB, funded by the Scottish Government, the UK Government, HIE and BT, will roll-out access to next generation superfast broadband to 84% of premises in the region by the end of 2016.

To meet the coverage target, our project specification included approximately 400km of new subsea fibre optic cables to link the Inner/Outer Hebrides and Orkney Islands, and over 800km of new fibre optic cable backbone and Fibre to the Cabinet/ Home. Those subsea cables have now been laid by BT via Orange Marine and I’m pleased to say that the project is on track for the 2016 deadline.

School pupils and Digital Scotland representatives from HIE, BT and BDUK gathered in Kinlochleven to celebrate the town’s connection to superfast fibre broadband. Picture Credit: Stuart Nimmo /HIE
School pupils and Digital Scotland representatives from HIE, BT and BDUK gathered in Kinlochleven to celebrate the town’s connection to superfast fibre broadband. Picture Credit: Stuart Nimmo /HIE

But what about the remaining 16% of people that won’t be reached by the DSSB project? As well as looking at how to extend the main roll-out, the Scottish Government has introduced Scotland wide initiative CBS. Also led by HIE, it aims to support communities unlikely to benefit from the main roll-out.

This project draws upon our experiences over the last ten or more years, as well as recent new developments, to find tailored ways to reach each of those communities across Scotland.

We’ve been involved in the largest current CBS project in Argyll which is looking at solutions for communities across parts of six different west coast islands and a mainland community. Build there is set to start soon.

In the Western Isles around 70% of premises will be reached by this phase of the main roll-out. The potential future role of the Connected Communities network in delivering high speed broadband to more islanders is being assessed.

These projects in Scotland are great examples of how technology can help to bring people together and how these kinds of services can be deployed in some of the most challenging environments.

However, I believe that other communities can learn from these examples. While the Highlands and Islands might be the most remote European location, other countries outside Europe face similar or even greater challenges. These include Australia, China, New Zealand and Vietnam, which all have challenging geographies and often large areas with low population density.

Through a combination of a large scale rural rollout specification, supported by bespoke connectivity solutions for the hardest to reach communities, there is now a blueprint for connecting almost any location, however remote.

Find out more about the Highlands and Islands next generation broadband project here.