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Scotland’s New Digital Strategy to Boost 5G and Superfast Broadband by 2021

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017 (10:53 am) - Score 1,636

The Scottish Government has today published a new Digital Strategy, which among other things confirms their plan to make 30Mbps+ “superfast broadband” available to 100% of premises by 2021 via an “outside-in” approach (prioritising public investment for the hardest to reach rural areas).

At present the existing £410 million Digital Scotland programme has already made superfast broadband networks available to nearly 90% of premises (only 46% in rural areas) and the current plan is to reach around 95% of Scotland with “high speed fibre broadband” by the end of March 2018, although this figure drops to 86% for the rural Highland and Islands region by the end of 2017 (here). Clawback and savings should help to boost this (here).

However last year saw the Scottish Government publish a Prior Information Notice for their new R100 programme, which revealed that they were also aiming to achieve universal coverage of superfast broadband by 2021 (here) and today’s new strategy adds a little more detail to that aspiration, albeit not a lot.

2017 Digital Strategy (Scotland) – Broadband and Mobile

Our investment through the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme has greatly enhanced Scotland’s digital infrastructure, creating a fibre spine that runs through most of mainland Scotland and reaches out, through sub-sea connections, to some of our most remote rural and island communities.

We want to build on this, to create high bandwidth, easily accessible fibre infrastructure across all of Scotland. This will provide a platform on which we can:

> Extend superfast broadband access to all by 2021, while encouraging the growth of ultrafast services

> Revolutionise performance by connecting fibre to masts, small cells and sensors and deliver further increases in speed and reliability as we move towards symmetric gigabit connectivity

> Extend international fibre links, reducing our reliance on London and building greater resilience and diversity into our networks

> Make targeted investments in mobile infrastructure that address gaps in 4G coverage, while laying the groundwork for 5G deployment in Scotland

> Develop a national LoRa-wide area network that supports Machine-to- Machine networking and puts Scotland at the cutting edge of the Internet of Things, while supporting our businesses to innovate and take full advantage of the economic opportunities offered by IOT.

We will continue to invest in digital infrastructure, focusing on areas that are beyond the reach of commercial suppliers. But our planned investment is likely to have a different focus in future.

We want to promote an “outside-in” approach. We will prioritise future public investment on our hardest to reach rural areas while ensuring that our UK partners prioritise rural coverage when it comes to setting future coverage obligations. At the same time, we will encourage commercial suppliers to address remaining gaps in urban Scotland.

We will bolster Scotland’s backhaul capacity. This will underpin a wide range of connectivity services, from superfast broadband and 4G today, to ultrafast broadband and 5G tomorrow. 100% coverage will not be delivered by one technology, one supplier or one procurement. We are planning a phased approach that will see a range of projects progressed from 2017 onwards. This includes a project, supported by the European Union, to bring new sub-sea fibre and microwave connections to our island communities.

We will also ensure that Scotland is at the forefront of 5G. Working with Scottish Futures Trust, we have already established relationships with key 5G players – from academia, industry, 5G working groups and regulatory bodies. We will formalise these relationships to drive the development of 5G in Scotland – and in so doing, ensure that Scotland receives a fair share of UK-Government funding to support 5G trials.

The Scottish Government intend to launch a public consultation in Q2 2017, which will aim to help define the new intervention area for reaching their aspiration of 100% coverage by 2021. Apparently this will “move away” from an approach based on postcodes, to one based on premises and thus “removing the anomaly where some premises have missed out of the benefits of previous programmes.”

Assuming all goes to plan then it’s envisaged that the first new contract procurements could begin “later in 2017,” with deployment being “anticipated” from 2018 onwards. Scotland also seeks to adopt an “outside-in” approach for this phase, both for mobile and fixed line connectivity, which will drive investment and upgrades towards disadvantaged rural areas first.

However the merits of adopting an “outside-in” approach at this late stage, after nearly all of Scotland’s urban and suburban areas have already been or are about to be reached by faster broadband connectivity, remain debatable. One way or another the Scottish Government will soon have nothing left but rural areas to focus on and there are a lot of those.

Never the less they claim that Scotland was “left poorly served as a result of previous UK-wide spectrum auctions, which prioritised revenue at the expense of rural coverage. We will work with the UK Government, Ofcom and industry to ensure that history does not repeat itself.” As a result an infill programme is currently being developed alongside O2, Three UK, EE (BT) and Vodafone, which should be published by June 2017.

Derek Mackay, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Constitution, said:

“Digital is transforming the way we live. It is connecting us faster than ever before while putting more power into the hands of service users. There is a huge opportunity here and now to ensure that people, businesses and organisations across Scotland, are given the tools and skills they need to harness this potential.

Our vision is for Scotland to become even more digitally competitive and attractive. By developing our existing workforce and increasing our digital capabilities across society and the business community, we will ensure that our citizens have the opportunity to improve their digital skills with everyone who wants to get connected able to do so, and public services designed by and for citizens that are secure. This will in turn will have a positive impact on growing our economy.”

A big question mark remains over precisely how much public funding will be available to achieve the new strategy. We know that the Scottish Government has already set aside around £42 million, although it’s unclear whether or not that includes the remaining commitment from Broadband Delivery UK.

However they’ll surely need many times more funding than this if the plan is to deploy a decent 30Mbps+ fixed line broadband service, otherwise they may need to fall-back on more Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) solutions and / or inferior Satellite connectivity. The Highlands and Islands region will be particularly difficult to complete via fixed lines due to its rugged rural terrain and sparse communities.

At present Openreach (BT) is the dominant supplier for the existing project via their FTTC and a little FTTP technology, although BT will only investment if it makes economic sense for them to do so and some of the remaining areas in Scotland may struggle to achieve such an outcome. In short, we’d expect to see a lot more in the way of alternative network (AltNet) providers being used but even some of them may struggle.

Despite the many challenges we must salute Scotland for being ambitious enough to set such a target, which is something that the UK Government is still struggling to deliver (they’ve committed to about 97% coverage of superfast broadband). The new strategy also covers plenty of other “digital” areas (skills etc.), although our focus is naturally on the telecoms and broadband side of things.

UPDATE 10:57am

The strategy also contains a simplified summary of related “actions” for the new strategy, which includes some interesting talk about using the business rates system to “incentivise the commercial delivery of new fibre and mast infrastructure.” Some of this may be linked to the UK Government’s related plans (here).

2017 Digital Strategy Actions (Scotland)

> Ensure that 4G coverage is available throughout most of Scotland and on all key transport routes – A and B roads and main railway routes.

> Urge the UK Government and Ofcom to apply the “outside in” principle when auctioning spectrum for 5G deployment and ensure that operators deliver coverage to our most rural areas before they deploy in urban centres.

> Establish a “5G Hub” in partnership with industry and academia to ensure that Scotland is at the forefront of 5G research and deployment.

> Develop our understanding of the Internet of Things and how Scotland can benefit.

> Ensure that all of Scotland’s cities have internationally competitive connectivity.

> Extend Scotland’s Internet Exchange across multiple sites, ensuring greater diversity and improving internet performance for end users.

> Use Scotland’s business rates system to incentivise the commercial delivery of new fibre and mast infrastructure.

> Take advantage of Building Standards policy to help ensure that new buildings are digital ready.

> Support Community Broadband Scotland to deliver a pipeline of 16 community networks across the country with potential to connect up to 8,000 premises.

> Develop, test and make decisions based on robust models of investment drawing on the very latest international data on the economic and social value of digital connectivity.

Leave a Comment
5 Responses
  1. craski says:

    In theory it sounds great to work “outside-in” but what has historically happened is that the contractual coverage targets set has forced the supplying contractor to concentrate on the easiest areas first, that and the fact it makes no sense to bypass premises on the way to helping those furthest out.

    In reality I dont see how the “outside-in” approach can work, the expectations are quite often unrealistic expecting fast coverage, cheap to deploy and best in class service (fibre). You cant have all three.

    1. MikeW says:

      The “outside” is the unprofitable bit. The part that relies on effectively being subsidised by the “inside” bit.

      If companies are forced to supply to the “outside” first, then they’re going to be a lot further from getting any return on their investment at all. With the added risk that comes with that, they might just not bother supplying anything at all.

      That strategy to force 5G deployment to be “outside-in” runs the risk that no-one bids for the spectrum.

  2. Cecil Ward says:

    Altnets ie random local monopolies, important people get full choice of quality ISPs whereas victims of the postcode litter get told who they are going to use never mind whether that is adequate. Great. And all users are home users, business users don’t exist.

    It needs to be a basic condition that networks always have to Wholesale and have to prove that they will do so _effectively, so that their eligibility is predicated on the customers actually getting a full choice of ISPs. In fact just like BTW, Openreach and TT.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      It’s not fair to describe altnets as “local monopolies” because they almost always deploy in areas where an existing infrastructure, such as one from BT, already exists. So you actually do get choice but don’t blame the altnet if BT or others don’t want to invest to upgrade their own lines. It’s not a disadvantage to have an extra choice of infrastructure provider via an altnet, that’s better than only one option of a slow network.

    2. craski says:

      It is hard enough to get altnets to work financially as it is without adding in a further hurdle forcing them to wholesale their network. If you do that you’d kill the altnets altogether (or increase their prices even further), it would be a backward step. The problem is that the public expect superb quality unlimited broadband for hardly any cash per month.

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