Broadband fling! Rebel Scottish village builds Gigabit network
We dig it: the Balquhidder community takes on the network giants.

Broadband fling! Rebel Scottish village builds Gigabit network

(UPDATED 27 March)

Balquhidder, a remote rural Scottish community, is building its own 1Gbps broadband network, after a decade of unsuccessfully trying to get commercial suppliers in the region to provide a better service.

The new network will be among the fastest in the UK – and the world – giving the village and surrounding areas access to broadband that is up to hundreds of times faster than the services available locally at present.

Many in the village have no broadband access at all, or only slow copper connections, or have been relying on expensive, patchy satellite services.

The project has seen local volunteers defy the network giants by digging trenches and laying fibre cables themselves across the landscape in the Trossachs National Park in central Scotland, on the southern boundary of the Highlands near Loch Lomond.

Balquiddher

Community interest company Balquhidder Community Broadband (BCB) will deliver the service to all the premises in the area, working in partnership with Stirling Council and internet service provider, Bogons.

• BCB is encouraging other communities to share their stories of poor connectivity and get in touch via its website, to see if it can help.

Two local residents are behind the scheme: scientist Richard Harris, and retired police officer David Johnston. Harris told the Sunday Post, “For each cluster of connections we are trying to find a champion to organise people in their area.

“The farmers will do most of the digging with their machines and we will have volunteers who will help out with that. After that, we will be looking for particular people to train on how to install the cable.”

Joining the three percent

The community project will see businesses and residents of Balqhidder’s 197 properties joining the tiny fraction of customers in the UK that have Gigabit connectivity.

The UK government said this month that only three percent of UK premises have access to full-fibre broadband connections. There are 27 million households in the UK, so that equates to roughly 800,000 premises.

However, few of those connections deliver speeds of up to 1Gbps, so the actual number of premises with Gigabit access is far smaller than that. As a result, Balquhidder’s businesses and residents will soon have the fastest broadband in the country, and among the fastest in the world.

• The world’s fastest average fixed-line broadband speed is in Singapore, with download rates of 161Mbps. The UK is currently 29th on that list – and falling – with claimed average speeds that are less than one-third of that: just 50.45Mbps. The Balquhidder project is unlikely to boost the UK’s ranking, because so few people in the UK have access to Gigabit broadband as to be statistically insignificant. The UK only ranks 45th in the world on mobile broadband speeds, according to Speedtest.net. Meanwhile, this Which report reveals that more than half of UK households have experienced broadband problems over the past year.

The UK government has published details of its “Super Fast Broadband” and Gigabit voucher schemes. The UK defines “super fast” as anything above 24MBps. However, the world rankings (see links above) prove that this definition needs to change for the good of the UK’s digital competitiveness. 

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Funded with £100,000 startup investment from Stirling Council, similar investment from its commercial partner, and rural development money from the Scottish LEADER programme, the Balquhidder project is expected to bring millions of pounds in economic gains to the area.

The network takes shape.

Speaking at the project’s launch, Johnston, now a director at BCB, said: “This project is hugely significant. Residential homes and businesses, some of which currently have no broadband, will be able to cancel existing poor copper-to-the-premise broadband and line rental contracts and enjoy world-class service, for less than most are currently paying.

“This has been a genuine collaboration between local businesses, local government, local people, and our commercial partner Bogons, to lay the foundations for broadband connectivity in Balquhidder on a par with the rest of the world.”

Starting a rebellion

Brandon Butterworth, a director of Bogons, said that the project could be the start of a rebellion, in effect, against slow, expensive service providers:

“We are looking to help other communities where the community is willing to do the digging and other works for us to install the fibre. A DIY dig saves the community a significant part of the installation cost where any fibre, even fibre to the cabinet, has not previously been available.”

Local businesses include the Mhor Group, which operates restaurants and a hotel in the area. Owner Tom Lewis, said: “This broadband scheme is vital to the development of our businesses. The markets we target expect, and demand, a good internet connection.

“Our current satellite feed is really expensive and only lets us provide limited email services to our customers, which has had a negative impact on our corporate conference business.

“It will be transformational once we’re connected, and will finally allow us to manage our businesses in Balquhidder, Callander, and Glasgow from our home in Balquhidder.”

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Internet of Business says

After a decade of campaigning, this community project should be applauded for saying “enough is enough” to the UK’s big service providers. In many cases, those companies have failed to provide anything like a world-class service to their customers – particularly in rural areas, but in other parts of the UK too.

At the heart of the problem is BT. As the big beast that sits, one way or another, on much of the UK’s ageing infrastructure, BT has arguably been the single biggest brake on the UK’s digital ambitions.

This is because instead of investing in upgrading the network to world-class standards for the good of the whole economy – as South Korea, Singapore, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and other broadband leaders have done – its policy has long been to regard true high-speed broadband as an expensive premium add-on.

In short, it has no economic incentive to do better, and the world rankings prove that BT has no basis for claiming that its basic services are “super fast”, as it has been doing now for several years. The UK barely scrapes into the broadband top 30.

In some areas of the country, including some cities, standard BT services are anything but super fast, with speeds that are often slower than 10Mbps. That’s 100 times slower than the service that villagers in Balquhidder will soon be receiving. 

A critical issue is the gap between promised speeds and those actually delivered to premises. Promised speeds allow both BT and the government to claim that much of the country has access to super fast services, but the reality is often very different.

Tech residents in a property in central Brighton – a city that is home to countless digital startups and app providers – told Internet of Business, “We salute Balquhidder for rolling up their sleeves and fixing this problem themselves. It’s brilliant that a rural community, where broadband connectivity is often non-existent, will soon have some of the fastest broadband in the country.

“In the centre of so-called ‘digital Brighton’, in the affluent south of England, the BT broadband in our building is currently 3.5Mbps on a good day – about half the speed that it was five years ago. That’s slower than the average speed available in Venezuela, which has the slowest broadband in the world!

“We pay a high monthly fee for ‘up to’ 20 meg, but the service has never even come close to that. The fastest it has ever been is 7Mbps.

“Once we complained to the Chairman’s office at BT. They told us, ‘Broadband isn’t a utility and it never will be’. That’s an unbelievable statement for a company like BT to make, but it says it all. They don’t believe it’s an essential service, and they’re only interested in their premium customers.

“We’re stuck with BT until a cable provider moves onto our street. Unfortunately, we can’t just grab some spades and dig up the road ourselves, much as we’d like to. It’d be simpler for us to move to rural Scotland.”

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Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is the editor of Internet of Business, and specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, digital marketing, and space exploration, and spoken at numerous other events.