Re-painting the broadband bridge – BBC

Re-painting the broadband bridge

What is of more importance to the Scottish economy: a new Forth crossing, the Edinburgh trams or a broadband network spread far and wide that can compete with fast-improving international standards?

In a tough public spending environment, such projects have to compete for government support. And there may be a case for a better cost/benefit return from putting relatively modest sums of public money into broadband cabling.

Living complacently in central Glasgow and with modest requirements, I can’t complain about connection speeds. For those with several people in a household simultaneously gaming and downloading, the options are getting much better around these parts.

The more pressing issue in Glasgow is the unusually low level of broadband take-up, linked almost certainly to high levels of poverty.

The city had 39% of households with broadband in early 2009, whereas Edinburgh and Aberdeen had 72%. On Clydeside, we’ve also got a very high proportion of homes dependent on mobile phones rather than landlines.

In rural Scotland, the chance of fast broadband would be a fine thing.

A report out this morning by think tank Reform Scotland says there are big gaps in our broadband infrastructure, and above all, in our planning for it.

This is not a think tank that routinely calls for more government intervention, planning or subsidy. On the contrary, it tends to prefer market solutions and a shrunken public sector. But the fact it’s making an exception in this case serves to underline the significance of the message.

Slow downloads

A key factor in all this is Neilsen’s Law, stating that average broadband speeds will double every 20 months. So for those of us quite satisfied with a service that chugs along reasonably happily with few demands placed on it, that’s a bit like saying we’ll just stick with Windows 95, thanks, as it’s never done any harm to us.

Scotland has nearly reached its former target where there’s coverage of the whole country at half a megabit per second. But that is too slow for the BBC’s i-Player, or fast music or film downloads. And it’s a brake on efficient business links.

It’s much tougher to deliver distance learning or e-health to remote parts of Scotland (where both are particularly useful) when speeds are so slow.

I’m told of at least one fisheries company in the Western Isles that sells premium live shellfish direct to Spain, but it’s only able to take its orders by fax. How many businesses even have a fax machine, or at least one they use?

The last Westminster government said there should be universal access to 2 megabits per second by the end of 2012 – a target delayed by the new government to 2015.

Telecom roll-outs

And the next target is to take a leap to 50 megabits per second by
2017 – at least for 90% of the UK. Reform Scotland rightly points out that the history of telecom roll-outs is that an impressive figure in the 90%-plus range doesn’t look so impressive in remoter parts of Scotland, which tend to be the bits left out.

The report states: “Some 20% of Scotland’s residential and business premises lie too far from the nearest exchange to have any expectation of achieving even the very modest two megabits per second 2015 target.

Meanwhile, it cites Scandanavia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in hot broadband pursuit of the South Korean and Japanese pace-setters.

Sweden has 89% of homes with broadband, and it’s aiming for superfast broadband at up to 100 megabits per second in 40% of homes by 2015 and 90% by 2020.

The Obama administration in Washington wants to reach 100 megabits per second to 100 million homes and businesses within the next ten years. That also leaves large gaps, but the strategy says everywhere should have access to 4 megabit per second download speeds.

Birmingham, Yorkshire and Wales are pursuing digital strategies or building new fibre-based networks, as a means of attracting inward investment. Cornwall has 99% coverage, typically at 4 megabits per second, having promoted “the Big Hunt” to find the remaining Cornish businesses and self-employed people who were not connected.

Yet, the report’s authors say there isn’t even a map of what Scotland has, let alone “a co-ordinated digital strategy to ensure that large parts of Scotland do not suffer from no or very limited access” to what is called Next generation Access.

Whizzbang technology

There’s quite a bit going on. It’s the co-ordination that’s the problem, and it says that may be explained by the Scottish culture minister being responsible for expanding participation in digital use, while other parts of the policy are down to the enterprise minister.

Among the other problems; much of this comes down to regulation of telecom companies by Ofcom, which straddles the border. Private companies need to see return on investment, and in remoter parts of Scotland, the market simply doesn’t support that. So subsidy has to kick in, as well as more effective regulation.

And of course, the technology keeps changing. The whizzbang ISDN technology on which a lot of government money was spent across the Highlands and Islands in the 1990s is several generations ago. To keep replacing it, it helps not only to have the latest fibre cabling, but also the ducting in place through which to feed it.

That could be made a requirement of all planning applications for new homes on green or brownfield sites, it’s suggested. And why not the inclusion of broadband ratings in Home Reports.