What’s the problem?

The lack of appropriate mobile and broadband connectivity on the Isle of Arran has reached a critical point whereby access and progress in education, enterprise, healthcare, welfare and social engagement is being stifled to a considerable degree, on a daily basis.

Some areas of Arran struggle to achieve anything higher than 0.5Mb/s connectivity with broadband, others can expect up to 6Mb/s.  This is reduced considerably at times of high demand, including peak tourist seasons when Arran’s population can grow from 5,000 to 25,000.

Mobile connectivity is almost non-existent throughout the island.

This is placing particular stresses on the delivery of emergency medical care, the tourism industry and the ability to fulfill statutory obligations such as filing tax returns online, renewing road tax, or registering farm animals etc.. There are many, many other examples whereby poor connectivity is causing significant boundaries to effective, fulfilling and lawful living.

As higher broadband speeds become the norm elsewhere, websites are adjusted to take advantage of this, becoming ever-more content rich. This means that Arran and other rural areas are left further and further behind, effectively suffering a reduction in connectivity not only in comparison with other areas, but also in real terms as sites become harder to download over slow connections. It also deprives residents and businesses of reliable access to increasingly important cloud-based services – such as Office 365, DropBox, Flickr etc.  Improved connectivity would provide a vital boost for the island’s rural economy by enabling rural residents to “export” their services far beyond their actual locality and bring revenue into local markets as they earn from elsewhere and spend locally.

Who is ConnectArran?

This informal group was set up in August 2015.  It aims to bring together the community of Arran – its residents, businesses, public agencies and visitors – to identify and shape a strategy for ensuring that Arran’s connectivity will improve radically and then develop further, in step with demand.

In November 2015 we formed a Steering Group to bring together experience in project management, technical expertise, business representation and political engagement. We also have key advisers including Andrew Stirling, Chair of the Centre for Whitespace Communication at Strathclyde University, and Jim Beveridge, Senior Director and Broadband/Affordable Access lead at Microsoft.  To date we have engaged very positively with a range of organisations and industry leads who are interested in meeting the connectivity needs of progressive communities like Arran.

Some of David’s leadership time has been enabled by Project Acorn funding from the Scottish Government Primary Medical Care department.  This is one of several grants provided across Scotland to enable innovative ways to address inequalities.

A wider ConnectArran reference group is in the process of being formalised, with input from all sectors of public services, key enterprise representatives and local residents.

What are the solutions?

It is anticipated that in 2016, Arran will experience a major boost to its provision of connectivity in the form of BT Openreach/Highlands & Island Enterprise initiative to roll out fibre broadband.  It has been indicated that this will reach 85% of Arran.

However, two significant issues remain:

  • those communities who miss out on this roll out are anticipated to be those who already struggle with poor broadband/phone connections.  We know that Machrie is to miss out entirely on fibre connectivity, and the present fibre roll-out is likely to miss areas such as Sliddery, Kilmory and Corriecravie (based on current information) – and yet broadband speeds here reach a maximum of 2Mbps.  (Current ‘best’ broadband on Arran is 7Mbps and fibre will deliver up to 50Mbps).
  • mobile connectivity remains a significantly important issue for the island.  2G connectivity is sparse and unreliable, and 3G/4G exists only in very specific pockets.  Notably, where broadband connectivity is poor, the same is usually the case for mobile connectivity.  This affects everything from tourism to emergency services.

So what else can be done?

Dynamic Spectrum

A range of technologies are now available to reduce the cost of enhancing rural connectivity. ‘TV Whitespaces’ (TVWS) (accessed using ‘Dynamic Spectrum’ technology) is in the final stages of approval for the UK using licence-exempt spectrum access to enable communities to act to improve their broadband-speed connectivity – complementing existing or planned fibre and microwave technologies which can provide the necessary backhaul.

The TV white spaces band extends wifi’s range, allowing larger areas to be served from a single access point (hence its Super WiFi nickname). For example, one Super WiFi ‘hub’ could potentially supply tens of homes with broadband connectivity.

Each house/business would require a converter, to convert the TVWS connectivity into conventional wifi signal which could be used by current wifi-compatible devices. In the longer term, there is an anticipation that new mobile devices will link in directly to a TVWS signal without the need for a converter.

Community Fibre Broadband

Inspiration has been taken from projects such as the B4RN initiative, whereby community groups can lay their own fibre network and, with agreement, connect this to fibre/microwave backhaul links.

Community/Public/Industry Partnership

It has been shown in other projects that sometimes commercial anxieties can be overcome by engaged, vocal and supportive community initiative.  We are well placed to connect service providers with local community groups to enable rollout of connectivity to areas which would otherwise be commercially unattractive.  This approach is already being used in the provision of 4G to Lamlash and Kilmory.

Our vision is for Arran to have a world-class ‘ring of connectivity’.  This can be achieved by a hybrid approach to connectivity – maximising commercially viable rollout as well as linking community initiative to service providers.