DIGITAL CONNECTIVITY IN SCOTLAND
Response to the Scottish Affairs Committee
The Ettrick and Yarrow Valleys are typical of a remote and very beautiful community in the Scottish Borders, lying immediately South West of Selkirk. It measures about 35 Km (22 miles) long and about 19 Km ( 12 miles) wide, making an area of about 600 sq. Km (375 sq. miles). See the attached map.It has about 380 homes housing about 850 souls. The population is ageing and declining, over 35% are retired and we have a very low percentage of children and young families. Young people tend to leave the valleys to seek work and better prospects in other areas of the country. They do not return.
The lack of affordable housing, few jobs, high fuel costs and very poor digital connectivity make it difficult to attract young people and families into the valleys. House prices are high and there is modest social housing provision. Many homes have been converted to holiday lets or second homes effectively taking them off the housing market.Although fairly quiet off-peak, the valleys are busy in the summer months, and the area is generally very popular for walkers, stalkers, fisherman and cyclists.
Farming and Tourism are our biggest industries. There are around 668 bed (hotels/ B&B/camping/yurts /caravan/cottage) spaces in the valleys; this almost doubles our population, albeit only temporarily. Over 600 of these beds are located in the Upper Ettrick, an area without mobile telephone coverage and extremely poor and unreliable broadband.
Digital speed and coverage
Broadband in the valleys is at best slow and in some areas is a serious problem, both in relation to speed and reliability, although fibre optic cable was introduced to Ettrickbridge last Summer, and just last week to Yarrowford, our two main areas of population. Poor digital connectivity hampers our ability to attract new business and to expand existing valleys enterprises.
Although mobile telephone coverage is generally available in the Yarrow Valley, along the A708 main road, and in the Ettrick Valley up to the Ettrickbridge area, it is not available in the upper reaches of the Ettrick Valley and the remote glens of the Yarrow Valley.
However, now that EE have secured the emergency services masts maintenance contract they will be installing additional masts which will house the four main mobile ‘phone suppliers in mobile ‘phone “not spots”. Mobile ‘phone “not spots” coupled with poor broadband can lead to social exclusion and to a risk to personal safety if residents are unable to contact emergency services, and are a barrier to business development and working from home.
Visions for the revitalisation of the valleys
As with the Scottish rural economy in general, the Ettrick and Yarrow Valleys are in decline due to a number of factors such as the ones mentioned above.
Rural decline has ensured that there are now more empty commercial properties than ever. These empty rural properties take many forms, usually shops, workshops, warehouses and farm steadings, rather than houses and flats.
If we can have access to superfast broadband and a mobile ‘phone with at least 4G technology, then this should ideally lend itself to the promotion of rural small businesses such as accountants, designers, writers, etc. who can work from home.
But perhaps the most relevant element for the stimulation of the rural community is to provide a workplace that can be used in a variety of ways, maybe as an equipment store, a base for a local handyman, plumber, electrician, builder or decorator; a vehicle repair shop or a studio for an artist or potter. A valuable asset whatever the use.
So, apart from affordable homes, if a workplace could be combined with superfast digital connectivity, be it broadband or 4G telephone, would the rural economy thrive again? This is our hope for the future sustainability of our valleys.
In answer to the specific question:
“What level and standard of mobile and broadband coverage does Scotland need to achieve to maximise the economic and social benefits of greater connectivity? To what extent do current plans for the rollout of broadband and mobile coverage in Scotland meet these needs?”
We believe that Scotland should seek to achieve 100% coverage of superfast broadband (at least 30Mbps) delivered to national standards of pricing, quality and reliability. The current flat rate charging is grossly unfair for those living in rural areas where the speed of connectivity can be dramatically slower and significantly less reliable than those in urban areas – yet the cost is the same.
We are concerned about the apparent focus by some on Broadband speeds that appear barely fit for the modern day, let alone the future. The 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO) proposed by the Westminster Government may sound good to the layman, but we consider the 10 Mbps standard is wholly inadequate, and ill-informed, and will prove to be a brake on the longer term capacity aspirations.
We consider that from the outset any system requirements should be capable of supporting much more than 30Mbps to provide faster options for those who need these speeds now (like some rural businesses). This will also “future proof” the network for everyone else, so that the network is sustainable in the long term and much less likely to need further public investment in future for speed or traffic upgrades.
We are concerned that the current practice of installing fibre to a green cabinet is not only distorting the coverage to the post code of fibre, but that it does not address the loss on speed and efficiency in the distance from the green cabinet to the customer, who could be miles away.
We believe that only a Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) solution can future-proof the network this way. Rural telephone exchanges should be by-passed to remove the maintenance liability and costs. We believe armoured fibre optic cable can prove to be maintenance free for 50 years and this should be the best option.
We believe the current maintenance standard is simply unacceptable. To wait several days for an engineer response is extremely poor customer service that is not fit for purpose. We believe that a maintenance monopoly is contrary to the best interests of our nation and this should cease at the earliest opportunity. An open market competition for broadband maintenance must be introduced.
All of the following must be addressed:
- Speed: a minimum of 30 Mbps available at all times for all users and not degraded by weather, peak time loading or other operational factors.
- The data cap should be unlimited.
- Affordability – no basic service “premium” for rural users.
- FTTP is the best solution in rural areas– do away with green cabinets
- Service and maintenance should be subject to tendering
Do current plans meet our needs?
From what we can ascertain at the moment, it seems likely that the R100 programme being delivered through the Scottish Government will prove successful in delivering superfast broadband (at a minimum of 30 Mbps) to the vast majority of Scotland.
There are doubts whether 100% coverage by 2021 will be achieved, but with the advance in white space technology (the use of unused broadcasting frequencies in the wireless spectrum) and even satellites as a fall back, there seems a strong likelihood that the programme will ultimately succeed.
We feel that this is not the time for any interference whatsoever in the R100 project.
It would appear that the operation being provided by EE to introduce a mobile mast for all four main providers is rolling out in our area, albeit at a leisurely pace. If the service this delivers is 4G from the four major suppliers then, from the rural Scotland point of view, this should prove adequate for now. 4G backhaul can be via satellite, radio waves or fibre. Which is nice and flexible.
However, if the mobile service is moving towards 5G in future then it is vital to ensure an adequate coverage of the fibre network to enable adequate backhaul. Also the need to factor in more sites for transmitters that will be needed, as the 5G signal is not omni-directional.
Careful planning will be required for 5G, and its near future arrival in rural Scotland is very doubtful!
“What are the barriers (economic, technical, regulatory, other) to delivering superfast broadband and improved mobile coverage in Scotland? What steps could be taken overcome these challenges?”
Although we initially felt that terrain and distance would pose the biggest barrier, the development of technology in recent years (armour fibre optic cable and the use of white space for example) seems to suggest that this is not such a concern.
However, we have a concern over the R100 budget, which was recently increased to £600m. But at the same time we are moderately content with the Scottish Government’s commitment to the project, as demonstrated by the recent scrapping of Community Broadband Scotland. CBS has been failing rural communities in delivering superfast broadband to them via community-led projects.
“Is the level of funding for broadband and mobile phone coverage in Scotland sufficient given the geographic and demographic challenges Scotland faces?”
It will be impossible to judge if the level of public funding will be adequate or not until the R100 tendering process is complete, probably by the end of 2018.
As we intimated in the previous answer, we feel somewhat comforted by the commitment of the Scottish Government, that they will top up the £600m budget for R100 if needs be.
We cannot comment on the funding for mobile ‘phone coverage until the current EE “not spot” coverage comes to fruition. As stated earlier, this is painfully slow.
“How well do the different stakeholders (UK Government, the Scottish Government, service providers) work together? Are there ways these relationships could be improved?”
Although at a local level the CBS advisors were very helpful, when matters progressed additional layers of complexity proved unacceptable to the market, and were quite unrealistic for a typical community project to manage and deliver.
We believe it is unlikely that the R100 project will experience the same difficulties because it should have learnt from CBS experience. The scrapping of CBS demonstrates that the Scottish Government is fully committed to the project.
We strongly recommend that there is no interference from the UK Government in a project that appears well underway. Any suggested deviation from the R100 project, to local councils for example, will only delay a much needed programme that appears well managed and up to speed.
We are very concerned that Government initiatives have singularly failed to keep the public informed. This is a glaring error and is a completely incomprehensible. The website for Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) Programme is a typical example; it seems to bear little resemblance to what is actually happening.
And despite the £600m public investment for the R100 project there is no web site or regular source of public information! This must be of paramount importance we feel.
“What technology options are available to increase connectivity in rural, and other hard to reach, areas of Scotland? What support is needed to develop and deliver these solutions?”
From our limited knowledge, gleaned from as many available sources, meetings and presentations etc we can attend, we believe that the most viable long-term solution in rural areas will be the use of armoured fibre optic cable on a FTTP basis. This will eliminate the need for a local exchange and provide a faster broadband speed to customers. It will also reduce the maintenance costs and increase reliability.
For the difficult to reach premises we believe the use of “white space” technology or new uni-directional wireless technologies may prove useful.
Of course, we must not overlook the use of the 4G mobile ‘phone network as an alternative.
We would like to believe that the R100 project will be up to speed with all available and near future technologies and will be able to supply future proof superfast broadband to all of Scotland in the very near future, certainly by 2021. We see this as not just desirable but absolutely essential to reverse the decline in rural population and so ensure the sustainability of rural Scotland.
Chair, Ettrick and Yarrow Community Council