The Outer Hebrides made significant gains in creating homeworking jobs in the early 2000 years and before the advent of broadband. This early success brought new opportunities, particularly to women as most of the work in rural communities at that time was male dominated manual work like fishing, fish farming and weaving.
Despite this early success all the development work and opportunities were being threatened as much of our more rural areas were being left behind as new broadband services were planned leaving 21 of our 34 telephone exchanges with no service. This had an equally detrimental impact on our rural schools, health centres and other public sector organisations. The key reason for our islands not being included was the much longer distances between telephone exchanges and the communities to be served.
The geography was challenging in that eleven populated islands were affected with an expanse of 200kms from North to South. As with most infrastructure out on the edge, the solutions were expensive and had to reach into some very sparsely populated areas.
The Community Planning Partnership (CPP) felt that this was detrimental to our islands and a plan to address the problem was agreed. This led to the development of the Connected Communities Broadband Network, initially serving all the public sector locations and the subscribers in the surrounding area. A key challenge was the development of a sustainable business model, as all partners agreed that the ultimate solution needed to be robust, both technically and financially. As well as the business community, the network needed to serve hospitals, airports and fire service meaning that mission critical services would be running over the network.
The eventual plan also had to meet what were challenging State Aid regulations, eventually resulting in a plan to exclude all areas already covered by the BT network. The 21 exchange areas to be served represented only 31% of the population as the BT service was serving the main population areas. As the plans evolved there was a lot of community reaction as many felt the grass was greener on the other side, resulting in significant time devoted to communications.
HIE undertook the procurement and subsequent management of the network on behalf of the CPP. This has included the further expansion of the network to reach beyond the original footprint of subscribers. HIE has also provided match funding towards the original £5.25m project which was co-funded through ERDF and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. The second phase has been funded by HIE in partnership with the local authority who undertook to build, as their contribution, all the community relay mast sites. A further expansion of the network funded through LEADER, for some of the most difficult communities, has also been integrated into the network ensuring that the communities are not burdened with the maintenance and ongoing support of complex technologies.
A key aspect of providing broadband services is that the growth, and especially the usage of bandwidth, increases substantially every year. HIE has funded this growth in capacity between the Outer Hebrides and the main internet exchange in London. The new undersea fibres planned as part of the HIE Next Generation Broadband for 2014/2015 will transform the capacity to the islands and provide a more level playing field for island communities.
The implementation of the broadband network has been transformational, providing access for nearly 2,000 business and residential subscribers, facilitated a robust communications infrastructure for rural schools and health centres, allowed new patient monitoring services to be connected directly to the hospital, allowed homeworkers and rural businesses to lessen the impact of geographic boundaries, all of which are essential ingredients required to strengthen our communities.
Donnie Morrison, Tel. 01851 707324 or Mob. 07770 544 670