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Challenge to connect remote Scotland is money, not technology - community broadband leader

Monday, December 15th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

The challenge in connecting remote communities is not with technology, but making projects financially viable, the head of a Scottish community broadband organisation has said.

Community Broadband Scotland (CBS) director Mark Tate said it is possible to connect everyone, everywhere, but the difficulty lies in getting projects to a sufficient scale to make them attractive to suppliers.

CBS is a Scottish government initiative which aims to help bring high-speed broadband to the communities which will not benefit from main broadband rollout programmes.

The £7.5m project, planned to run until March 2018, aims to reach the remaining 16% in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands region not covered by the target to bring superfast broadband to 84% of the region by the end of 2016.

Mr Tate said CBS, which is led by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the Scottish Government’s economic and community development, offers advice, guidance and support, helping fund communities’ research into their current provision and possible solutions.

Speaking to Cable.co.uk, he said he starts from the premise: “everything is possible, every area is possible”.

He said: “Certainly the technology is there. The challenge is never the technology.

“The challenge is the business model to make it work. The challenge is the sustainability.”

CBS has already funded seven projects, enabling just over 1,000 connections, he said, bringing faster speeds to people who were previously getting less than 2Mbps – sometimes less than 512Kbps.

He said many of those had had someone driving the project forward.

“I think our challenge is in those communities where they’re not lucky enough to have those individuals in the community.

'Sufficient scale'

“And it’s getting projects to a sufficient scale to make them attractive to suppliers to come in and offer solutions or at least offer partial solutions to help them.”

Mr Tate said despite dealing with communities as small as 40 premises in one case, the project has not yet come up against a place where it is unable to find some sort of solution for.

There may be some premises where a satellite solution is the only solution, he said, and many of the solutions CBS has delivered are fixed wireless rather than fibre.

But he said these are capable of delivering next-generation speeds and will be BDUK-compatible.

Mr Tate said it is vital that networks are self-sustaining, adding: “What we’re doing…is creating the critical mass to enable the companies in the market place to come in and offer a service.

“It’s almost a hybrid commercial community service, the community still needs to come in and take ownership and be involved.”

Community Broadband Scotland is acting as an “enabler” to bring communities and companies closer to together, he said.

“For example in the highlands and islands, BT would have delivered fibre commercially to, I think, 21% of properties. The investment that’s being put in by HIE, the Scottish government, DCMS and others, will take that to 84%.

“So the areas we’re dealing with – the final 16% in the Highlands and Islands and the final 4% in the rest of Scotland – it’s right on the edge of market failure.

“What we’re doing, and successfully so far, is trying to create a market from that final x% to enable companies to come in and deliver solutions, and to empower communities to do the bit that they can do to make it easier for companies to come in and deliver solutions.”

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