Neil Watt

UK & Europe

Neil joined Atkins in 2001 and began working with clients including Angus Council and what’s now Police Scotland to design and install their wireless network. This gave the Council and Police high speed data connectivity and voice communications, both of which are absolutely essential to how they operate today. Since then Neil has worked on superfast broadband projects all over the UK and even in the Middle East and Asia and Connected Communities in the Western Isles of Scotland. When Neil joined the Connected Communities project there was no broadband connectivity in the Western Isles. Now the area is running a network that spans 13 inhabited islands and serves thousands of residents, businesses and the public sector.

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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.

UK & Europe,

Digital infrastructure is pivotal to the growth of the UK and our adaption to new ways of working and living. With the government’s aim of 95% of the UK having access to superfast broadband by 2017 supported by an £11 billion investment in communications, skills are vitally important in making sure these targets are met and delivered.

As highlighted in the report, the sector is facing challenges in finding the right skills and experience. Too few graduates are skilled in the areas of fibre optics or mobile phone infrastructure. Academia appears to push students towards further research. As a result individuals may not have an understanding of the practical elements of digital or wireless infrastructure, meaning they are not adequately prepared for industry. Businesses and academia need to work more effectively together on identifying what skills individuals need to leave the education system with, to properly equip them for the realities of the working environment.

In the meantime, one of the biggest consequences highlighted for the sector, is the risks associated with having to rely on overseas resources. Without either enough engineers or those with the right skills engineers across the supply chain to deploy on these large scale projects, we will inevitably need to look outside the UK. However, recruiting overseas can pose its own challenges. With some aspects of the delivery posing national security issues.

The UK is currently seen as the centre of engineering excellence around the globe. However, the wider issue for UK plc is if we’re not able to showcase what we’ve achieved at home. It will have an impact on our ability to sell our expertise around the world and to compete internationally which is something we need to protect, making it vital we tackle these challenges.

I can still remember after completing my very first project at Atkins 15 years ago, I felt like I’d made a real difference to the way people communicate and connect to each other. It is this experience, opportunity and example of what it is like to work in such a diverse and interesting profession that we need to be better at demonstrating to the engineers of tomorrow.

A full copy of the skills report is available to view/download here.

UK & Europe,