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January 28, 2020

Broadband if you share

Commitments to bring superfast broadband connectivity to every home in the country are usually accompanied by caveats and clarifications such as when they say every home what they mean is 95% of homes by a date that is so far into the future as to be meaningless. With the result that the more remote communities continue to put up with speeds that the urban centres have long since forgotten about. Lots of false dawns, and this next one – shared spectrum – may be yet another. But the fact that it proposes a degree of community control offers a glimmer of hope.

The Herald

RURAL communities could soon take control of their connectivity through “shared spectrums” with mobile providers, with businesses and residents owning the local network.

Costly infrastructure has been blamed for deterring more commercial providers into the countryside, but a dual investment approach could link up communities beyond the superfast network – 30megabits per second – towards ultrafast – 100mbps – and top-end full fibre levels of 1000mbps, or one gigabit.

The first model will be tried at a test-bed at Loch Lomond by experts at University of Strathclyde in conjunction with the Scottish Government.

The Herald revealed on Friday that Scotland is at a critical juncture over provision. Now there are also new plans for rural inclusion.

Professor Robert Stewart, head of the department of electronic and electrical engineering at University of Strathclyde, has been working closely with companies including Microsoft and Cisco in establishing new ways to connect rural Scotland to the fastest possible network delivery.

He outlined Ofcom’s recent “revolutionary” move to open up the airwaves.

Mr Stewart said: “We’ve been working on this for 10 years, it is called shared spectrum.

“It is a pretty simple thing: use it, or share it. Not use it or lose, use it or share it.

“That was revolution day, that was the day that Ofcom said ‘we can share’.”

He said: “You get the money, you build your own network, you can get shared spectrum, and that will come with cost, that will come with effort, that will come with business relationships, but it is a community co-operative and then from that you could be offering the service. Power to the people a little bit.

“With the Scottish Government we are going to run a test-bed at Loch Lomond. It is 26 miles from Glasgow to our core site, and we’ve got almost no connectivity at all in some of the locations.

“Only a few people live there, but Scottish Water are there, Sepa are there, tourists are there, and lone workers.

“So 18-20 months is the timeline that we are looking to be demonstrating viability.

“Again, a relationship with the mobile network guys is really important. They are key to it.”

Openreach is working directly with rural communities on co-funded builds towards gigabit-capability, and says it intends to test innovative ways towards “busting barriers”.

Robert Thorburn, Openreach’s partnership director for Scotland, said: “When the Digital Scotland project started, there were swathes of Scotland where there were no plans for any fast broadband. Today, 94 per cent of the country can get a superfast service. That’s truly transformational.

“It’s been a massive task to build a fibre-based network across some of Europe’s most remote and challenging terrain. Engineers have connected up 5000 new street from North Roe on Shetland to Drummore in Dumfries and Galloway using more than 13,000KM of cable – equal to a quarter of all the roads in Scotland.

“We’re going to see a seismic shift from the copper network of the last 120 years to a new, full fibre network. It will give people and businesses a platform capable of gigabit speeds which will be future-proof for decades to come.”

He added: “The challenges in rural Scotland, both physical and economic, will be unprecedented. Success will need unparalleled partnership and collaboration between the private and public sector, communities, businesses and residents.

“We’re working hard on all fronts to make it happen, from providing free full fibre in most new housing developments and working direct with communities to busting barriers that hold up progress and testing innovations to bring down rural build costs. We’re fully committed to the next stage of the country’s digital journey.”

Phil Siveter, head of Nokia Enterprise, UKI, said it is “keen to play a role in building out the infrastructure to help Scotland meet its economic and social goals, acknowledging the contribution that connectivity can play to support transport, business and community development in rural and urban communities”.

He added: “Nokia is particularly encouraged by initiatives under development with metropolitan authorities as they advance their smarter city goals.

“We anticipate that with the introduction of 5G, and acceleration of new IoT-based services, Nokia could contribute not only its skills and technology, but also know-how based on its experience elsewhere.”

James McClafferty, head of regional development at CityFibre, said collaboration is key, adding: “Digital infrastructure is the cornerstone of any successful modern economy. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity – a critical utility like water and energy.

“Although the UK has succeeded in becoming a leading digital economy over the past decade, rising demand for fast and reliable connectivity means that today’s copper networks are not fit to support our digital economy.

“It’s clear that Scotland and the UK as a whole need to upgrade to full fibre as a matter of urgency if we are to maintain our competitive advantage in an increasingly digital world.”

He also said: “Fair and effective competition is essential to making this a reality. There is too much to be done for one company to do by themselves.

“CityFibre and other industry players must work together to ensure our investment plans make the very most of that Government support and delivers a competitive market to help unlock further significant sums of private investment.”