Yesterday morning this observer noticed another exasperated thread on a popular Nairn social media page concerning high speed broadband in the town. The roll out across Nairn has certainly not been universally praised. Later on I read an article in The National by Lesley Riddoch. My mind then flashed back to the Nairnshire area committee meeting last week (Weds 21st) where local Councillors Stephen Fuller and Liz MacDonald raised concerns about high speed broadband and mobile coverage in parts of Nairnshire and their desire that these be priorities for their new committee. This prompted the Highland Council Leader, Margaret Davidson, who was sitting in on the meeting at the invitation of her Independent group colleague Michael Green, to make a lengthy contribution. She certainly knew her stuff and she said:
“Broadbrand and mobile delivery are a priority for the Council, they’re right up there with Highland First. The reason they are there is that I don’t know a community in the Highlands that doesn’t have this on their agenda. The level of frustration and expectation rises each month, and that’s because it is usually important, it’s really important for the way of life that we are evolving: we are going to need it to deliver health and social care in the future, for connectivity it’s holding families together at the other end of the world and I understand that completely.
And it is very much going to be what will help keep some of our young people here because they need decent mobile reception and broadband there is no doubt about that and every tourist that arrives in Nairn will take out their mobile and see whether they can get a signal and the answer is some places yes and some places no. We’re now at the moment, is, that BT has delivered, just about finished delivering, the first part of the first contract which was to put 84% cover for high speed broadband across the Highlands and I say “haven’t we done well?” They are probably going to deliver a little bit more because it is about squeezing a little bit more out of them and it might go up to 85, 86%. This is fine, if you are sitting somewhere within a few hundred yards of a green box you’ll do well. If you are outside the orbit of that it starts falling away quite rapidly and I’ve got complaints from areas of Inverness that you would think would be fine but they’re not. And you may well have patches around the town where it’s not great. BT are just about getting there with that contract. Any improvement in high speed broadband in the area of the green boxes you need to get to BT.
If it is of any use to you I have the contact details of the chief executive of BT, Brendan Dick because I find that trying to get a service anywhere else in the organisation is practically impossible. So I’m quite happy to share that with you guys if you need to use it.
Mobile reception is on the move, there’s a lot of applications up to come through about upgrading existing masts. The police and fire masts are going to be upgraded and they’ll be public access to...I don’t understand most things with broadband and Wi-Fi, I just like using it like most people but the upgraded masts will be available for public use and BE which is now part of BT will be actually operating businesses on the back of that. So they will be operating full services for people within the range of these masts. They’re upgrading with 4G and that is happening quite rapidly across the Highlands. I see it across my desk because I’m part of the planning committee applications from that regularly for rural Inverness.
The other thing is that there is a push by other operators Vodafone and O2, they’re working in partnership and they are looking to put in a lot more masts along the road infrastructure in Highland. There are many places in the Highlands, you can drive down the trunk roads and your reception falls out and comes back and I think that is to be welcomed. In addition to that there are other masts where they are choosing to put them in. But we are at the mercy of what the mobile operators are offering. So we haven’t yet got a clear picture. They are going to come with their applications and that’s 4G which is really good. Except that 4G has less penetration than 2G and you have to be close to the mast to get the benefits of it. However what I do think is that we are going to have significantly improved mobile reception within the next 12 months and that is actually on the move and the mobile operators are really keen to do it. They’ve got certain obligations from the UK government that they’ve got to deliver.
What we are really waiting for now and the biggest hold up is the Scottish Government coming forward with their plans of how they intend to get to 100% high speed broadband which is what they have promised. The frustration is that there are communities the length and breadth of the Highlands. You may have them in rural Nairn that are willing to pick up the baton if nobody is coming and organise their own Wi-Fi systems with Community Broadband Scotland, as some have been done on the west but they can’t move until they know how far the main stream stuff is going to get because you can’t invest public money twice in one place. And the real frustration is that they are still waiting and I’ve been saying this now for over a year. Still waiting for a clear picture of where public investment is going and where communities need to work with Community Broadband Scotland to fill the holes. You may have areas like that, certainly in rural Inverness I do, lots of it. It’s a mixed picture, we really have to at the moment, your target, if you want to target BT, I think they are doing what every business does, making the most of their contract. [...]”
Margeret Davidson then suggested that the Nairnshire Committee also got HIE along to give them an update, she then went on:
“I think we now need to put the target towards the Scottish Government, everyone is waiting for them to say what’s their plan to get to 100% coverage. The trouble with 100% coverage is that the deadline, the delivery date for that is up to 2021 and I do not know a single community that is prepared to sit quiet and wait until 2021. They’re not and they shouldn’t be, it is too important for business, for leisure, our way of life. It’s too important there.
The really good news is that the guy in charge of Broadband is Fergus. The MSP for this area and I meet Fergus regularly and discuss it with him. But really at the moment we should be all saying to the Scottish Government come on let’s have your plans so that we can all get on.”
Liz MacDonald thanked Margaret Davidson and said that it would be worthwhile if they invited an HIE official to the December meeting. Liz then outlined difficulties that Geddes and Cantray and Galcantry have and that a delegation of people had met with Fergus recently to try and get their situation pushed further and she knew that he was working on that. She also said that there were also parts within the town that didn’t get the broadband required. She asked for the matter to be put on the agenda for the next meeting.
And so this week this observer went up to the Co-op for his daily copy of the National and within the paper was an article about Superfast Broadband and mobile reception in the Highlands. Like the Leader of the Highland Council, columnist Lesley Riddoch is also critical of government policy in the Highlands, her article is entitled: “The Government's failed on broadband - here's how to fix it.” She criticises the roll out of superfast broadband, she wrote:
“After various false starts resulting in “not spots” all over the Highlands and Islands, the Scottish Government decided the Highlands and Islands should come first in the rollout of superfast broadband.
That hasn’t happened, indeed the delivery of “superfast broadband” across the whole of Scotland – especially rural Scotland – has been a bit of a disaster. So much so that Nicola Sturgeon’s 2015 pledge to connect 100 per cent of properties by 2020 simply won’t happen unless the Scottish Government tears up the existing model of broadband rollout and starts again.”
She goes on to compare the situation with that of the Faroes: “A recent trip to the tiny Faroe Islands, located between the Shetlands and Iceland, revealed something rather more ambitious and successful. There 98 per cent 4G LTE coverage is backed up by an islands-wide fibre network. Indeed the cluster of 18 islands is set to have 100 per cent superfast mobile broadband by the end of 2016. That coverage extends out to the 200 mile fishing limit – to include the Faroese fishing fleet and passing cruise ships – and also a mile up in the air to cover important helicopter routes. There are no exceptions, no not spots and there is no argument about Faroese Telecom’s claim to provide the world’s best mobile broadband.”
The Faroese are even willing to sort Shetland’s problems it seems but existing legislation may scupper that according to Lesley Riddoch. The Scottish Goverment has a few years to realise its 100% ambition but as Margaret Davidson articulates, people are not patient. Such is society’s hunger to be on the information super highway 24/7 that many voices will be raised in the intervening years. Not only is it a social necessity that our addiction to the internet be satisfied no matter where we live it is of course, again as the Chair of Highland Council insisted, a must for business survival and growth – a level playing field is necessary for the remote parts of the Highlands to compete with similar UK and international businesses. Read Lesley Riddoch’s article here.
Perhaps it is a lot easier for the Faroes who enjoy a greater autonomy than Scotland. The assessment of Lesley Riddoch is that it “has more to do with political control than technological pyrotechnics”. Give the Faroese the contract for the whole of Scotland – superfast and mobile?