Broadband programme failing to deliver for rural properties

It underlines the importance that good broadband now plays in our lives that broadband speeds have become a hot topic in so many conversations in pubs, coffee shops and the living room.

So, when the Scottish Government launched the Digital Scotland initiative, backed by £157 million of public money, there was a feeling that, at long last, something was about to be done to bring our broadband infrastructure into the 21st century.

Rural broadband still in slow lane

In all the hype surrounding the Digital Scotland launch, there was much talk about giving 95% of the population access to “superfast” broadband by 2017.

The huge public investment was seen as an assurance that the programme would not just be about improving connections of those within easy reach of the exchange. This surely was a programme that would reach rural properties that, otherwise, might not be included on pure commercial terms.

Rural subscribers were eagerly anticipating the ability to use BBC iPlayer. Web pages opening at more than a snail’s pace. And videos that weren’t unviewable due to constant buffering. The younger members of the household imagined being able to play online games with their friends.

Digital Scotland did nothing to calm this enthusiasm, pumping up the hype and the expectation that we were all going to enjoy a real step-change in our digital lives.

Now, with the target year just months away, it is becoming clear that, for many rural properties, the programme is failing to deliver.

Even those just outside fibre-enabled towns are finding that their lines – “upgraded” as part of the Digital Scotland programme – are no faster than before and, in some cases, are actually slower and less reliable.

The nub of the problem seems to be confusion in what was the target for the programme.

  • Was it to deliver “superfast” broadband (with the generally accepted definition of “superfast” being 24MB and upwards)?
  • Or was it simply a technical exercise to upgrade lines so that they could connect to the fibre network?

It appears that, in terms of rural properties, BT has been taking it as the latter.

But, surely, connection of rural properties to the fibre network is providing “superfast” broadband?

Sadly, no. Not unless – like some rural communities such as Clinterty – fibre cables are installed into the community and connected to fibre splitters on the telephone poles.

For most rural properties, BT are connecting former ‘exchange only’ lines to connection boxes located at the exchange. If the distance between the exchange and the subscriber is more than 1,200 metres any benefit of fibre is likely to be negated by the length of the old copper wire network in between.

So, a line 2km from the exchange that received 5-7MB as an EO line, is now rated at 5MB, with a boost of just 0.3MB if the subscriber chooses to upgrade to fibre broadband!

Hardly “superfast” is it?

A long way short of what all the “superfast” hype and the promise suggested by the huge public investment in the programme. Investment which raised expectations of extending the fibre network into rural communities.

The net result is that the digital divide between urban and rural householders has been widened as a result of the Digital Scotland programme. Those living near telephone exchanges are enjoying speeds of 50MB or more.

But, those on what BT calls “long lines” are seeing little or no benefit from the programme.

The reality for many is speeds of less than 5MB – a tenth of what most urban subscribers get and half what the UK Government believe should be the minimum household target.

Sorry, Digital Scotland, if those of us outside the 1,200-metre range of an exchange don’t join your celebrations.
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