Fibre Optic Broadband for the Islands of Orkney – Is it Achievable?

By Carl Mullins

In a word, yes.

fibre optic cableWouldn’t it be great if it was that simple! There is certainly a case for it, although there are some serious obstacles to be tackled beforehand. It isn’t as easy as just setting up a company to roll it out to whoever wants it, although that would be nice.

With over thirty years of experience in various technological disciplines, I’ve been fortunate to work with communications through time, in both military and civilian environments.

As an infantry soldier using and educating others about subjects, such as military field and vehicle radio equipment, antenna theory, communications security. Upon leaving the military I moved into and worked as a project and service engineer and surveyor in the field of commercial satellite, terrestrial TV and two way V-Sat technology (including the massive change from analogue to digital transmissions in the mid to late nineties).

Later I moved into audio-visual disciplines such as digital signage, sound systems, video conferencing from multiple types of platform as well as executive event support at varying levels of complexity. As the technology has developed over that period, I enjoyed a career at pretty much the front end of communications as they were developed and rolled out to both the commercial and VIP domestic market. I was and still am, particularly gifted at ‘making things work’.

I have seen how good communications not only make a real difference throughout society, but also how large corporate players use it to good effect when doing business either internally or with other economic entities. It’s a bit like pressing your shirt and trousers before an interview; get it right, you leave a good impression. Do it badly, it can have a serious impact on a company’s reputation and profitability.

Knowledge is power, to quote a famous phrase. Information, however, is the beginning of knowledge. Access to information is the course to learning. To have access to modern day learning and put people on a par with what is taken for granted on mainland Britain, especially in the cities, Internet access is considered a very high priority. This is true not only within schools, universities, and public services, but also the private sector and for the last 10 years or so, to places of residence.

Ok, so we already have Internet access in Orkney, in some cases pretty good, if you’re lucky enough to live within close proximity to a BT cabinet. BT itself is currently engaged in getting Fibre to the Cabinet (known in the trade as FTTC), so good speed is there, but if you live a fair distance from a street cabinet, then you’re ultimate speed is decided by the length of copper wire (your standard telephone cable).

Rural areas suffer this effect more than most because the population density is considerably less than what you would find in urban/suburban areas. Therefore the distance from the cabinet to the home/business premises is considerably more, and the signal attenuation considerably higher, leading to less speed when measured in Megabits per second (Mbps). Less density of customers, both commercial and domestic, equals less profit for internet service providers, so you then fall into the standard argument of being at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to getting even a reasonable level of Internet speed, especially on the inner and outer islands.

Now please forgive me if I’m making the standard case and preaching to the knowledgeable, as to why non-reliable Internet communications is something we should just have to put up with, because that’s the way it is. I think it is important to have at least a basic understanding as to how the system is currently working, so that those not of a technical nature can at least have some understanding as to why things are the way they are.

Having the Broadband conversation has been, and continues to be a source of great interest, not only to myself, but also to many others throughout the islands. Access to public services, whether job hunting, filling in tax returns, applying for road tax etc, are becoming more and more something that has to be done online. I know of at least a couple of farmers personally who go through Hell every time they attempt doing returns online. The need to now do this on a quarterly basis might make life easier for the establishment, but a lot of these farmers are losing the will to live. This is just one example.

The speed of technological advancement in the modern world is such that by the time we get decent Internet speed on the inner and outer islands, everyone else will be experiencing the ‘Internet of Things’ and taking it for granted. That in itself is another topic which I’ll leave to those with superior knowledge and ability to explain in layman’s terms. Suffice to say it does get complicated.

So, to simplify things, lets look at the challenges smaller island communities are having to face with getting an Internet speed worthy of the name.

A – Distance from the cabinet.

I have already mentioned this earlier, but it makes the case for Fibre to the Premises (FTTP). This overcomes the problem with signal attenuation via the existing copper cable attenuation and means that significant internet speeds potentially become a reality over much further distances. The most achievable way of doing this on the outer islands is to treat each island community, both domestic and business, as you would a small or medium business enterprise and build a network accordingly, taking into account all the communication requirements of each island as a whole, so as to reduce the cost of duplication of infrastructure.

Digging in the conduits for the fibre optic cabling means you would be protecting it from the harsh climate and future proofing the amount of bandwidth required for potentially the next 100 years. This isn’t something that the big corporate players are interested in, but there are some very successful community schemes already in operation. By adapting their knowledge and experiences to suit the requirements of ourselves, a community scheme designed around our requirements becomes possible. It’s this area I’m currently engaged in gathering information about, so as to develop a way of getting it into action.

With the assistance of community development trusts, OIC, VAO Connect projects, National Lottery funding and certain Armed forces charities it’s certainly do-able.

B – Existing inter island communications links between remote islands and the mainland of Orkney.

This varies greatly, from existing telephone cabling to microwave radio links of varying bandwidth capability. The more Internet traffic generated then the less bandwidth availability there is to share during peak use times. It’s also unreliable. Again we have the problem of cost of infrastructure upgrading when compared to density of population or numbers of residents on any particular island. Certain islands currently have no available date as to when services will, if ever, be upgraded.

The answer to this might be a simple as asking the right question of the right people. We know that there’s a drive to increase the number of wind turbines across the islands, which in a lot of cases do benefit the islanders in a good way, although there is opposition. If the re-enforcement of the national grid infrastructure via the laying of subsea cabling (to be able to deal with the load of electricity generated by the wind turbines), goes ahead, then the cost of labour and equipment is already being earmarked somewhere. Why not either incorporate the fibre optic cabling within the core of the electrical cabling, or run in a second cable? The real cost is the labour and subsea laying equipment. Laying a second cable or adapting the electrical cable would be a minimal cost. The question is currently being asked via a neighbour involved in the renewables sector, to which the answer may be of considerable interest.

All in all, there is some considerable way to go before we can get to the point of actually laying fibre optic cable to the premises, but we do have to accept that unless we are prepared to work together as a community, then it isn’t going to happen. The task is difficult, but not insurmountable.

It will take some level of recognition to acknowledge that for the inner and outer islands especially, it’s not so much a luxury as it is a necessity for survival in the modern age.

We could of course, just sit back, make the argument that we are quite happy with what we’ve got or don’t really want things to change. But that route in itself, in the most extreme case, would eventually mean life on the more remote islands coming to a conclusion, with land being eventually bought off so parties can stick up even more wind turbines for their own profit and not the community’s. We’ve reached this point and it’s beginning to happen.

In general, it’s a matter of finding a balance that suits everybody.

his isn’t a definitive work on Fibre Optic Broadband, far from it. The whole point of the article is to raise awareness, give some understanding of the task at hand, encourage discussion and instead of saying ‘There’s a problem so we can’t do it’, we say ‘There’s a problem, but may I suggest a possible solution?’

I’m sure there are many people who can see the benefit of this project I’m attempting to push, but I will be the first to admit that this isn’t something achievable on my own. So I would ask readers of this article to please feel free to comment, criticise, correct or make suggestions of their own, as well as passing it onto others who would be useful points of contact. Ideally I would be pleased if we could, as a group, start building up a network of contacts across the islands to address this.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we succeed or fail, but for the sake of our way of life, our love of our communities and to attract people and business into our ever-decreasing populations, we have to try. To that end, I will attempt to keep readers up to date with how things are progressing.

Next stop – Northern Isles Digital Forum, St Magnus Centre, Kirkwall. Monday 28th August.

My thanks to Nick Morrison and the Forces Breakfast Club, for providing the encouragement to write the article in the first place, and my future thanks to those who, having read the above, decide that they want to help make decent Broadband connectivity something we can all actually have.

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