I know I won’t have to explain to my constituents what it means to have to deal with poor broadband connections. Getting better connectivity throughout rural Scotland is a massive challenge and working to deliver on this is one of my top priorities.
I worked in the telecoms industry for twenty years, so have a keen sense of the scale of the task set out in my party’s manifesto to have 100 per cent of households accessing superfast broadband by 2020. Scotland is racing forward to meet this goal — the Scottish Government’s stated aim people is to allow people across Scotland to connect any time, anywhere, using any device.
We need the broad vision but it’s important to consider the practical side of how this goal will be delivered. In some rural areas, it can seem as though a super-fast broadband connections are an age away. Some communities have the understandable worry that they will get left behind.
My instinct is always work to find solutions. We know that in many rural areas the market has failed. Rather than complaining about this, I’m far more interested in working out ways to move things forward.
Recently I visited one of the most successful and inspiring rural broadband schemes in Europe.
B4RN or “Broadband for the Rural North” is a not for profit community benefit society that has managed to connect over 1,500 homes in north west England.
The results are impressive — their customers, who can also become shareholders in the scheme — enjoy connections of 1,000 megabytes per second.
When you consider that a standard superfast connection is generally reckoned to be over 24 megabytes per second, you get a real sense of the quality of service they offer.
So what’s behind this success? I think there are two key pillars to what this company has achieved.
Firstly, their community based not for profit model ensures that B4RN roll outs prioritise investment in infrastructure and goodwill from locals. Secondly, they’re fortunate to have world-class technical expertise within their team.
The technical solution that the company offers is ‘fibre to home’ this means that new cabling is installed for every property.
One of the big problems in rolling out rural broadband is the common practice of installing fibre cables to a street cabinet, while individual premises remain connected to the cabinet by old copper wires.
This can work fine in urban areas, but often fails to improve speeds when properties are dispersed over wide distances.
The main argument against ‘fibre to home’ is cost. But B4RN’s not for profit model allows the company to manage this cost by pooling the connection fees of each customer.
I can't think of a better model for delivering connectivity than one that puts rural communities at the heart of the process — if we get this right the results will be transformative.