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Highlands to Switch-off ConCom Wireless Broadband Network

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019 (8:57 am) - Score 2,463

The Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has announced that the publicly funded Connected Communities (ConCom) wireless network, which since 2005 has been bringing slow broadband speeds of up to 4Mbps to the remote rural Outer Hebrides of Scotland, is set to close in March 2020.

As we recall the network was one of the first large-scale deployments of broadband Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) technology in the United Kingdom using the 5.8GHz radio spectrum band, which for a time covered around 97% of the 30,000 or so people living across the Western Isles (i.e. Lewis, Harris, Benbecula, and North and South Uist). Locals tended to connect to this through ISPs like Hebrides.net.

The main change since then has stemmed from the impact of the £442m Digital Scotland (DSSB) with BT (Openreach), which in 2014/15 delivered new sub-sea fibre optic links to most of the islands and later deployed faster “fibre broadband” services to local premises using a mix of FTTC (VDSL2) and a little “full fibreFTTP technology (example). Some smaller community wireless networks have also been setup.

The DSSB project has thus resulted in many homes and businesses moving their connectivity from the old wireless network in order to adopt faster broadband. Today FTTx coverage stretches across 29 telephone exchange areas from Barra to Lewis, bringing “superfast” (24Mbps+) speeds to around 80% of premises. Sadly this also means that it’s “no longer viable to subsidise the ageing [FWA] network from public funds.”

One potential problem here is that around 500 customers still use the old wireless network and many of them may be in areas that the new connectivity has yet to reach, which means they’ll have to seek alternative solutions (e.g. Satellite broadband or 4G wireless may be an option).

Stuart Robertson, HIE Director of Digital, said:

“Connected Communities has played a vital part in island life for 15 years and switching it off marks the end of an era. It’s helped us run our medical services, our schools, and has linked our people and businesses with the online world.

We’ve kept the ConCom network going as long as possible while the publicly funded fibre roll-out has progressed. Creating ConCom and keeping it going for the past 15 years has been a considerable investment by HIE and our partners that ensured the Outer Hebrides were able to share in the benefits of early broadband. However, we’ve reached the point where other solutions are now available and it’s no longer viable to subsidise this ageing network from public funds.

There are around 500 remaining customers across the islands. We want to give them as much notice as possible to check for alternative solutions. We have advice on our website www.hie.co.uk/broadband and we also have details of how to contact us for anyone who is struggling to work out what’s available for them.”

When the network is switched off HIE plans to remove equipment from mast sites, some of which have already been decommissioned since the roll-out of faster fibre based connectivity services. The good news is that those who aren’t covered may still benefit from future deployments.

The Scottish Government recently awarded the contract for their £600m Reaching 100% (R100) programme to BT (here), which aims to extend 30Mbps+ capable superfast broadband to as many of those in the final 5% of poorly served premises as possible. On top of that the UK Government has pledged £5bn to help extend gigabit-capable broadband to every home by the end of 2025 (here).

In addition, from March 2020 it will become possible to take advantage of the new Broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO), which will make it possible for those in poorly served areas (i.e. those where there are no plans within the next 12 months to deploy something faster) to request a download speed of at least 10Mbps (1Mbps upload) from BT (or KCOM in Hull).

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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