Am Bratach No. 229
November 2010

Super broadband but not in strath
by Mandy Maggith

Broadband users in Strathnaver have been suffering from poor service in recent weeks, with frustration building about slow, inadequate response from BT and AOL, the only broadband providers in the area. Ironically just as connections ground to a standstill, Highlands and Islands Enterprise announced that superfast broadband would begin rolling out soon across the region.
Andy Dawson, who lives in the strath said: “It’s not really broadband here at all. It’s so slow, it’s terrible, and half the time it doesn’t work. AOL keeps saying that the exchange can’t go any faster. Everyone blames everyone else. AOL blames BT and BT blames the government.” Some other local businesses and self-employed people have lost income as their internet connections were down for several days in mid-October.

A spokesman for BT said: “We try to provide a steady service.” He said that he recognises that businesses in the remotest areas are those that can benefit most from better communications, and that a good broadband connection can help to compensate for long distances to markets. However, he said: “It’s simply down to the laws of physics. ADSL signals deteriorate with distance from exchanges.” When challenged about BT slow response time for fixing the Strathnaver fault, he said: “We don’t discriminate against people according to where they live; however it may take longer to get engineers to a more remote location.”

Andy Dawson is the secretary of Sutherland Access Panel and he points out that, for people with limited mobility or other disabilities, a good broadband connection can help them to stay in touch with friends in family and to access services including shopping. He said: “The internet is a lifeline. It has become a way of life. I use it all the time, but it has been so slow recently you can’t do anything.”

So should we be cheered by HIE’s announcement on superfast broadband for some areas of Highlands and Islands? Andrea Rutherford, HIE development manager for the project, said: “Whilst this project will not serve everyone in the region, it is our aim to ensure a wide range of town sizes and locations are served to maximise the learning from this project.” She also said: “There will be areas within North West Sutherland that will benefit from superfast broadband.”

But will coverage always be partial? BT has described a major project in Cornwall as “a blueprint for remote rural areas”. With EU funds, BT will provide superfast broadband to the county, promising download speeds of up to 100Mbps (megabits per second). Yet the devil is in the detail: BT will deliver superfast links to up to 90% of households, but the missing 10% will be those in small, remote communities where they will have to make do with wireless and satellite broadband.

BT is currently running a “Race to Infinity”, encouraging people to vote for their area to be the first to benefit from high-speed fibre-optic broadband. Although the race is restricted to exchanges with more than 1,000 customers, BT also wants people at smaller exchanges to vote for “infinity”. If more than 75% of the users of an exchange vote then BT will “engage” with them — although unfortunately not necessarily via superfast broadband.


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