Am Bratach No. 309
July 2017

Digging for broadband

News that BT Openreach has agreed to pilot a “fibre-to-the-premises” scheme in Skerray and Altnaharra has been cautiously welcomed. BT claim that residents who connect to the scheme are “set to see their download speeds rocket from less than 0.5 Mbps to up to 330 Mbps”. In reality, the speed is likely to be around 80 Mpbs.

A BT statement presents the pilot as a partnership agreement whereby local residents will help to dig in the cables to “more remote premises”. A Skerray resident who attended a public meeting held by Openreach said it was his understanding that “BT Openreach are putting in the main fibre which will be going down the main road. If you want to connect into it from the road, you will have to dig the ditch or pay someone to dig the ditch. They will come and survey it”.

BT Openreach have begun digging in the fibre cable from Borgie. Work has also begun at Altnaharra, where the estate is reported to be assisting with the work.

At Skerray post office, which has experienced major disruption to services through frequent faults on the line, Rhona Graham has a wait-and-see attitude. “Once the fibre cable’s in, we’re not going to have a copper cable across the beach, so the connection should be good by then. That will be something that the Post Office have to deal with,” she said.

A BT spokesman confirmed that plans to re-route the faulty copper cable which runs across Torrisdale beach have been abandoned in favour of the new scheme. “The cable that’s had all the faults because it’s been struck by lightning so many times, that will be taken out of the equation,” he said. “All the homes will be served direct by fibre from a fibre node on the network.” No information is yet available on the cost to individual households of a fibre-to-premises connection, or whether other options will be available for households who do not wish to pay for a fibre connection.

The news on Skerray and Altnaharra comes as a study by consumer magazine Which? revealed that the median download speed across the Highland Council area was the third slowest in the UK. Orkney and Shetland have the slowest speeds of all. From his home in Ardmore, Kinlochbervie Community Council chairman Graham Wild said that the installation of fibre broadband in the area had made things worse for some people. “The broadband issue in and around Kinlochbervie is that there’s only one cabinet that’s connected and for people that are outwith that area, over a mile and three quarters, their service has gone down. Their service is now worse, because the line can’t cope. Kinlochbervie is an industrial village, and if you’ve got somebody working at the harbour and they live at Oldshoremore, they’re struggling to get in contact.”

The Kinlochbervie experience mirrors that of Melness and other townships or individual households situated too far from the main fibre network. It calls into question the suitability of the Scottish Government’s Digital Superfast Broadband strategy for rural areas of Scotland where homes are scattered and cannot be served in large numbers by the level of infrastructure currently committed to. As in the case of Skerray, the provider may ultimately be forced to dig in anyway.

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