Andrew Walwyn, Managing Director, ToowayDirect
There are few subjects that have more gained more column inches of debate in the last 15 years than the complex story of rural broadband in Scotland.
But for all the talk and well intentioned announcements of pilot schemes and grants, most truly remote Scottish communities are still in the same situation as they were then in terms of broadband access.
They either have no real broadband service, or services are so slow and erratic that they can’t be relied on.
Political commentators continue to insist that extending a fibre based infrastructure to all those end users currently suffer from no broadband at all, or less than the much vaunted 2Mb level is the only satisfactory way forward.
Fibre is an excellent enabler for broadband, but for a number of reasons it won’t solve Scotland’s remote broadband problems.
There’s a key significant reason for this. Most people don’t realise that many of Scotland’s rural exchanges do already have fibre or a fast broadband infrastructure laid to them.
The huge challenge is that beyond the rural exchanges, ordinary telephone wires from the exchange to the user’s promises are being expected to carry the broadband service.
But the ancient copper overhead wiring isn’t able to support fast broadband, let alone the next generation super-fast services Ministers are gunning for.
When the original telephone network was created and expanded in the early part of the twentieth century, it was only ever conceived as a medium for voice.
No one could have possibly envisaged broadband at that stage, and the copper network with all its rural junction boxes and uncharted routings simply isn’t compatible with the national fast broadband service we all need.
When the internet started to become popular in the late nineties, BT saw their copper PSTN telephone network, most of which of course was paid for by the GPO years ago, as a way of delivering broadband across the whole nation.
They developed firstly ISDN and later ADSL technologies which gradually improved speeds to a level where websites and email for everyone became possible. But ADSL and copper wire won’t deliver serious broadband speed except over very short distances.
So here’s the rub; to make the next generation wired broadband services work reliably and predictably in all urban and rural locations, the copper telephone network would need completely replacing across the whole country.
Many estimates are banded about as to how much this would cost, but clearly no one really knows.
A BT spokesperson off-the-record intimated to me that for the whole of the UK a figure of in the region of £250 billion (yes, billion) was probable.
Even if that kind of money were available to invest in our communications infrastructure, which clearly at the moment it isn’t, there is no business model for anyone to ever recoup a fraction of that investment.
Domestic broadband users expect broadband to be delivered to their home like a utility and to pay virtually nothing for it.
So what’s the answer? Clearly most of the working population and their children know that broadband is an essential part of everyone’s future. It’s simply not possible to be fully engaged in modern life, education and work without access to broadband.
The Scottish Government has recently announced a new £5m broadband scheme called the Community Broadband Scotland (CBS) initiative. It’s designed to act as a "one-stop-shop" for rural community groups, giving them pertinent information and advice to find solutions for broadband delivery in their areas.
Rural communities will be eligible to apply for grant funding to enable them to obtain greater access to the internet.
The first round of funding is expected to focus on supporting a number of community projects in the most poorly served broadband areas and results will be used as case studies for a wider roll out across the whole of Scotland.
What’s important now is that advisors and stakeholders in the scheme don’t keep banging on about fibre, and how it can change people’s lives.
For fibre to be an active technology in connecting the most remote users fibre would need to be laid to every home and that £5m budget wouldn’t stretch to more than a small handful of communities.
Most impartial commentators agree that what’s needed is a patchwork of integrated technologies working together to fill in the broadband gaps.
One option that is proved the world over (and indeed is used by the likes of the BBC and other global broadcasters) is satellite broadband. With a simple dish installation onto a property, like a satellite television, a user can have access to 18 Mb, wherever they live.
Some Scottish communities are wary of satellite based solutions after pilot schemes with first generation satellite services in the mid noughties failed to impress.
But the latest Ka Band satellite broadband services can deliver a reliable and fast broadband to any location, today. Satellite is a unique, enabling technology that can deliver fast bandwidth wherever it’s needed, no questions asked.
Modern compact satellite hardware performs vastly better than the early systems did.
Dishes are much smaller and can be self-installed, and satellite providers can deliver broadband, digital TV and a voice services over one dish with just one bill, and costs have come down dramatically with free hardware and connection on some tariffs.
Andrew Walwyn, Managing Director, ToowayDirect