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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 13:36 GMT
Bridging the Highland digital divide
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Robert Freeman
BBC News

Aviemore, at the foothills of the Cairngorms, is the gateway to Britain's largest national park, holding about a quarter of all the country's threatened species.

Aviemore
Aviemore is now looking for a different type of connection

Until last month broadband was a little-seen phenomenon in the remote Scottish town. Today though it stands as an example of how rural communities can enjoy high-speed internet access every bit as much as their urban counterparts.

In October BT upgraded Aviemore's telephone exchange - along with five others in the region - for ADSL broadband. Already, 150 homes and businesses are enjoying the benefits.

Fitting then that the town should host the recent Access to Broadband Campaign. While 60% of the Highlands and Islands can get fast net access down the phone line, that's still significantly less than the 90% average across the UK.

The cold spots are beyond Aviemore, in the thick of the countryside, where many villages are too small to be served by commercial ISPs. This has led the Scottish Executive to pledge help by committing to bring broadband to every community in Scotland by the end of 2005.

But many groups are not prepared to wait and fearing that the Scottish Executive's plans might result in broadband of the lowest common denominator, they are looking at radical DIY broadband options of much higher specification than ADSL.

A "beefier" form of broadband is needed, they argue, to make remote areas more competitive.

Telemedicine

One of the most disliked properties of ADSL is its asymmetric nature, meaning it delivers more information to your computer than it can take away. To use the train analogy again, it's a bit like having eight trains a day into Aviemore from Inverness, but only two back.

Highlands
Broadband is available, but it's patchy

This is far from ideal if you want a symmetric data flow, as you would in applications such as videoconferencing.

The Connected Communities project in the Western Isles has already invested in a high specification network which is due to be turned on this month. The wireless network, funded through Highlands and Islands Enterprise, stretches across the six main islands.

Although business and residential broadband provision is a key part of the scheme, the network also provides for the local authority's administration needs, and ICT in schools and learning centres.

The local NHS board aims to extend telemedicine across the islands using the network, which should save many patient trips to hospital in Inverness.

Distance working

The area is experiencing a steady flow of new residents and the scheme is expected to aid job creation and retention, particularly in the teleworking sector.

"The most common questions we are asked by potential newcomers are, what is the health service like? What are the schools like? Do you have broadband?," says Donnie Morrison of Work Global who promotes the Hebrides as one of the most cost effective places in the UK for call centres and e-working.

Donnie Morrison
Donnie Morrison: Question no 1 - have you got broadband?
On launch, the Western Isles will have the widest coverage and the greatest bandwidth anywhere in the Highlands and Islands.

The speed begins at 2Mb per second in each direction and although the upper limit will probably be around 6Mb per second, there is plenty of room for extension of that bandwidth in the future without having to upgrade the core network.

But the creation of projects like this are too few, and too slow for teleworking consultant Michael Wolff. He is worried that unless more is done to enable teleworking in the UK, jobs lost to other countries will not be repatriated and he estimates four million jobs are at risk.

Tesco and Norwich Union are just two UK firms which have decided to save money by moving administrative jobs abroad. With the right communications, these tasks become portable and can be done anywhere.

Job creation

However Michael Wolff believes big companies will find this kind of outsourcing will not meet their expectations, but will not want to go back to the previous structure of directly employed staff in company premises.

Michael Wolff
Rural areas tend to give people the quality of life they are looking for
Michael Wolff
"There are a million people currently under-employed. They typically care for children or older relatives, or they have moved out of the conventional workforce seeking work life balance. They could do these jobs, but without a broadband network in place, we cannot compete with off-shore companies", he says.

"Rural areas tend to give people the quality of life they are looking for, but these are just the places we cannot get the broadband communications to enable those jobs to return to the UK."

The greater technical innovation and wider penetration of local networks like that in the Western Isles, have led some to question whether ADSL is still fit for purpose.

Certainly that community now has a much better service than is offered by incumbent providers elsewhere, albeit with some help from the taxpayer.

Back in Aviemore, a stone's throw from the deliberations over how to solve Scotland's digital divide, the volunteers of the Strathspey Steam Railway are planning an extension towards Grantown on Spey, rebuilding more of the closed line. A major attraction, it contributes 40,000 tourists a year to the local economy.

Maybe the model for the Highland's broadband isn't so radical after all.




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