Is 5G the answer to rural Scotland’s broadband needs?

Digital Villages go hand in hand with enhancing the local Internet access capacity.

Meeting the digital infrastructure needs of a local community requires both the networking and the web applications. However it has proven a challenging task.

The Scottish Government has a laudable goal of achieving 100% rollout of broadband across Scotland, the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband initiative funded to the whopping tune of £600m.

It is a central feature of their digital economy strategy, correctly identifying that high speed Internet access is the essential enabling foundation for any community wishing to participate in the modern digital economy.

The Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme is a key element of the wider Digital Scotland Programme, and supports the Scottish Government’s aim to make Scotland a world-class digital nation by 2020.

R100 delayed

Challenges have included the delay of this ‘R100’ roll out. As the Herald reports the program has been delayed. This means many rural communities experience broadband “Not Spots”, weak or even non-existent coverage.

David Duguid criticized them for not keeping up with their own roll out schedule, and as the BBC reported in September, Audit Scotland has said it’s unclear how Scotland will achieve their goal of 100% availability of 30Mbps broadband, and that additional funding on top of the £600m to date may be required.

about a quarter of rural areas cannot receive 10 Mbs, the auditors said.

Audit Scotland reports that just 13 of the 63 initiatives were successful with a lack of specialist skills, poor communication and complex tendering requirements causing lengthy delays and failed procurements. Scottish Borders published a report describing that the roll-out “possibly” delivered value for money, but there were “major problems with the quality of the coverage.”

It’s a common challenge for rural communities, Wales too struggles the same way, but it’s a no brainer that in today’s digital economy the building block of a competitive nation is that every one has access to high speed Internet.

However although BT Openreach is rolling out access extensively, such as delivering FTTP to Orkney, Shetland and Lewis, coverage in parts of Scotland is still poor. The Highlands and Islands have the worst mobile Internet service in the UK and Scottish 4G coverage is less than half that of England.

As the Courier reports“Around £442 million has been invested or committed to the programme since 2014, with roughly 930,000 homes and businesses across Scotland now able to connect to fibre broadband. It is estimated the investment will help to boost the Scottish economy by £2.76 billion over 15 years.”

  • “The cost of residential connectivity is beyond the affordability of disadvantaged groups/low-wage households. At a Scotland-level, evidence shows that household internet access is linked with income and tenure (with those in social rented housing less likely to have access to internet at home).
  • Uneven broadband coverage makes NA less attractive to businesses and investors as it may be a deciding factor in whether businesses choose to locate in the area. Therefore, it depresses job creation and inward investments.
  • There is lack of provision of free public access to Wi-Fi and anecdotal evidence shows that business access to the internet is currently insufficient and that the roll-out of highspeed broadband has been slower in NA than in other areas across Scotland.
  • Strongly related to digital skills (alleviating one constraint not sufficient without the other).”

Is 5G the answer?

New technologies offer exciting potential to help address this situation, notably 5G. For example 5G RuralFirst is a co-innovation project led by Cisco alongside principal partner University of Strathclyde to explore the potential of this next generation of networking for rural communities.

The Scottish Government has declared they intend to be a 5G leader, their ‘Forging our Digital Future with 5G’ plan stated the technology could add £17bn to GDP by 2035, “creating 160,000 jobs and increasing productivity by £1,600 a worker”.

However again the challenge is translating the theory into reality; as Sarah Skerratt comments, it’s an exciting future vision IF they actually receive the capability.

Community broadband initiatives

Another option is for communities to self-organize their own capacity upgrades. There are various commercial supplier scenarios and some communities have even dug and laid their own fibre connectivity, ‘DIY Broadband’, such as Balquidder Community Broadband.

Lothian Broadband has built their own wireless network in the Lothians and because it’s wireless, are able to supply Superfast speeds to even the most far-flung homes. All you need is ‘direct line of sight’ between your home and our network.

The European Network for Rural Development offers two example case studies of how other European communities have addressed their own local broadband needs:

  • In Lapland the Kuitua pohjoiseen project was established to help villagers to set up cooperatives and apply for public grants to build their own high-speed broadband networks. The project also acted as an intermediary, helping the cooperatives to learn from each other and to negotiate the necessary network arrangements with service operators.
  • Broadband Network Development in Rural ‘White Areas’ of Greece is a national intervention to close the digital divide in remote and sparsely populated rural ‘white areas’.

This highlights the potential for new technologies like airband TV white space delivery, offered by vendors such as Whitespace. This seems perfectly suited to the use cases where traditional fixed line services either aren’t available or just don’t work for the end users.

This could be anything including providing broadband connectivity to rural communities, delivering wireless connectivity across campuses, or connecting developing countries to a TV Whitespace network.

They have been building and testing TV white space technology and infrastructure in some of the most challenging areas of the UK for the last two years. The Whitespace team has its home in Sheffield, with an additional office in Inverness. The team have a collective 60 years’ experience of building ISP and communications services.

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