Local ingenuity highlights our national failings – and should become the blueprint for Scotland’s future network infrastructure, writes Ricky Nicol.
SCOTLAND has long been a nation of innovation, home to more than its fair share of world-changing inventions.
Yet when it comes to our networks, the millions of miles of wires and cables that connect our homes and businesses, it would seem we are – with a number of exceptions – uncharacteristically risk-averse.
Like the wider UK, our entrepreneurial spirit has been pushed to the periphery, leaving us with an archaic network of Victorian copper, while our neighbours on the continent are simply light-years ahead.
To put this into perspective, Spain has a network that is 80 per cent Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP). This means that ultra-resilient fibre-optic connections, which can carry speeds more than 100 times faster than copper, are hard-wired into a large majority of premises.
The UK currently stands at a dismal 2% FTTP, with a great deal of that confined to London and the South East.
So when a recent consultation by BT Openreach revealed that there is support for its FTTP ambitions from the largest communications providers, the likes of Sky, BT and Vodafone, for a large-scale FTTP enabling network – it is hard to get too excited.
Despite hailing the virtues of Fibre-to-the-Cabinet in the past (where a copper connection from the cabinet on the street to the premises slows speeds significantly), Openreach has now changed messaging, with FTTP being hailed as the solution that would “safeguard the UK’s position as a leading digital economy.”
This is undoubtedly great news and not before time, but there is an issue.
The market failures that persist have left vast swathes of Scotland with internet speeds that should have been outdated at the turn of the millennium.
Conversely, London’s vast and intense cluster of businesses creates the economies of scale that significantly reduces the cost of an FTTP connection.
With one dominant provider, the incentives simply are not strong enough to cover more rural areas – or even urban areas outside of central London.
Thankfully, pockets of ingenuity have helped create “community broadband” initiatives, with a number in Scotland such as those in Kingussie and Ullapool – where local spirit has seen groups mobilise, collaborate and work with an alt-net to enable ultra-fast connections at reasonable costs per person.
Likewise, fleet-footed infrastructure builders such as CityFibre (with its metro networks in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen) have stepped up to install their own gigabit-capable pure fibre networks.
In Edinburgh, the local council has stepped in and supported this network, helping it grow to an impressive scale, that will immeasurably benefit the capital’s schoolchildren, council workers – and its businesses.
So while the perception may be that we are lacking a vision on a national level, it is safe to say Scotland’s entrepreneurial spirit is bubbling away, doing what it can, where it can.
Partnerships between communities, alt-nets (alternative network providers such as Commsworld, Hyperoptic and Gigaclear) along with government and local authorities is a model that now has countless proven successes at a local level.
This model should become the blueprint – with further support from government to help join the dots between communities, business and councils.
With the universal acceptance that FTTP infrastructures are essential to grow our economy and prepare us for the future, then we must find a way to get this done, once and for all.
Ricky Nicol is Chief Executive of Commsworld, Scotland’s leading Telecommunications Network Provider.
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