As you may recall, on 26th July I was pleased to host the latest Northern Isles Digital Forum in Kirkwall where the guest speakers were Stuart Robertson. director of Highlands and Islands Enterprise; Brendan Dick, Director of BT Scotland; and Jamie Stewart, representing the Countryside Alliance.
The main part of the meeting involved a joint presentation from Mr Robertson and Mr Dick on the planned roll out of super-fast, fibre optic broadband across the Highlands & Islands. Thanks to £146m of funds from UK and Scottish government, HIE and BT, a target of delivering high speed broadband across the region by 2020 has been set. In the first phase, this will involve reaching 84% of premises by 2016, although Mr Dick explained that a similar target for the project in Cornwall had been exceeded by around 10%, due to developments in technology and efficiencies identified once the project was underway.
Engineers are currently undertaking assessments about where land-based and subsea cabling work is needed, and an announcement is expected in the autumn about the first areas that will be targeted. Mr Dick and Mr Robertson confirmed that, while it was unlikely that Orkney would be involved in this initial work, given that more of the ‘backbone’ of fibre was already in place here, there was a recognition of the need to avoid delays through 2014.
The main focus of questioning, understandably, was around the timeframe for delivery in Orkney and concern that there would still be parts of the county not covered by the proposed roll out, despite the funding made available by UK and Scottish Government, HIE and BT. A £2.5m innovation fund will look at how areas not covered by fibre might be served, and Mr Dick and Mr Robertson also made a commitment to work with community groups, possibly using the Community Broadband Scotland funding, to help ensure that ‘not spots’ were addressed as part of this initiative.
A copy of the joint presentation is available upon request, but the following link provides additional information, which you may find helpful. http://www.hie.co.uk/about-hie/news-and-media/archive/146-million-investment-in-fibre-broadband-heralds-a-new-age-of-communications-across-highlands-and-islands.html In addition, there was a commitment given by BT and HIE to attend a follow up meeting of the Northern Isles Digital Forum towards the end of the year (or early 2014) once further detail on the timetable of work is known, including plans for the roll out in Orkney.
Jamie Stewart then spoke in the second half of the meeting about the Countryside Alliance’s campaign for better mobile connectivity in rural areas, highlighting the importance of not being forced to rely on just one technology. Mr Stewart welcomed the decision by Ofcom earlier this year to ensure that when the faster mobile internet technology, 4G, rolls out, it will have to cover 98% of the UK population indoors. He hoped that this spread of technology would help to reach even more people than the superfast broadband roll-out.
In his presentation Mr Stewart highlighted the ROOT Metrics mobile phone ‘app’ which users of iPhones or android devices can install on their phones to record the levels of mobile signals they can access in any given location. The ‘app’ is free and through a wide variety of people installing it on their phones, can build up a very thorough picture of actual coverage, as opposed to the sometimes less accurate information provided by mobile phone companies. More details of this can be found at http://www.rootmetrics.com/app/
In his summary of key points, Mr Stewart was keen to highlight the importance of broadband connectivity as a key component of our national infrastructure. He argued that coverage rather than speed should be prioritised, to ensure greater access for a larger number of people. He pointed out that for most people, speeds of 4-6Mb would be ample, and that providing this as a minimum for everyone should be the priority rather than far higher speeds to 90% of the population.
As I say, Alistair Carmichael and I will look to convene another Digital Forum in Orkney towards the end of this year, or in early 2014. If you would be interested in attending, please do let me know, or keep an eye out for announcements in the local press. If you are interested in receiving copies of the presentations made at the Digital Forum, please contact my office on firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, I hope that you will continue to raise with me any broadband, mobile phone, or even landline problems you have, as well as logging them with your providers. As was discussed at the Forum, this is extremely helpful in building up a picture of where problems exist in Orkney and where investment is needed.