Dumfries businesses lose out over lack of superfast broadband

More than twelve million pounds is being invested by Dumfries and Galloway Council to speed up the roll-out of superfast broadband. The authority hopes that 100% of all homes and businesses will be connected by 2021. But a business, just ten minutes outside of Dumfries, has spoken out about losing customers due to a lack of internet access.

The Mabie House Hotel is unable to take bookings online because the internet connection isn’t fast enough. The hotel’s manager has criticised the council for not moving quick enough when it comes to providing superfast broadband. People nowadays like to book online there and then they don’t want to sort of go on the website and then have to phone up. We’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do that…they just want to book there and then so it sort of becomes oh we’ll not go there because I’m too busy.”

– Phillipa Proudlock, Manageress, Mabie House Hotel

The owners of Mabie House Hotel can’t get any wifi on site so they set up their broadband hub further down the road with a neighbour. But if the wifi goes down for any reason, they have to wait for that neighbour to come home and reset it.

It means they sometimes go for hours without any internet. At first it wasn’t really an issue because broadband wasn’t a big thing back then.”

We lose on business contracts, basically because we have no broadband wifi so when they come back to the hotel they can’t do their emails they can’t do their work. It’s really quite embarrassing.”

– Phillipa Proudlock, Manageress, Mabie House Hotel

Nationally the average download speed is 23.4 megabits per second. The average broadband speed in the Scottish Borders is just 14.7 megabits per second. Cumbria is above the average at 26.1 megabits per second. The speed is even better in Dumfries and Galloway where it’s 27.3 megabits per second. However, that speed can only be accessed at three quarters of homes and business.

I think in a rural economy our businesses need to be able to compete. You can’t compete without the infrastructure of broadband. You can’t sell the fabulous products we’ve got unless you can reach the customers in their homes and across Europe and the world.

– Gavin Stevenson, Chief Executive, Dumfries and Galloway Council

Bad broadband akin to taking a pen from a child

Despite its proximity to Waterford City, CountryStyle Foods in Kilmacow has to contend with very slow broadband speeds. That’s the reality for the company’s managing director Rory Williams, who’s had an ongoing interest in the National Broadband Plan since early details were announced. At a thinktank on rural broadband in Kilkenny last Thursday, Mr Williams said the real tragedy of poor quality broadband is its impact on young people — and, potentially, the businesses of the future. Given its importance today, he likened not providing broadband to going into a school classroom and taking a pen from a child.

“None of us know where the next Google or Facebook or Glass Eye is coming from,” he said.

Mr Williams is a member of the Kilkenny Broadband Action Group (KBAG) set up to look at broadband.

“We sat down at a meeting and said let’s see what’s out there,” he says.

“What have people done?”

KBAG then visited sites in the UK where different solutions have been applied. The first visit was to Cumbria where a ‘top down’ approach was being implemented. It was an insight into the various difficulties they faced, including trying physical terrain, and even historic problems

Mr Williams also spoke about Rakala in Finland — a rural area which relies on tourism. They were increasingly finding that young people weren’t visiting anymore.

“And so it became a community-led idea, and they reckoned if they could get fibre broadband it would bring more people into the area,” Mr Williams told the meeting.

“More people, more tourism, more spending.”

Another visit was to Lancashire, where a community-owned network, ‘B4RN’, was founded by volunteers.

“It turned out to be a fascinating rural community project where they considered a variety of options and then formed a co-op community,” says the CountryStyle managing director.

“It was a very powerful model, and it spread then. Because the next parish said ‘if they can do, we can do it’. It then became a social funding model, and the funds generated stay within the community.”

B4RN did have the benefit of an existing coterie of people, and some other advantages, but Mr Williams said the model had worked very well for the community there.

“It allows them to be co-owners of the internet, not consumers,” he said.

Fibre ‘best’ to bring broadband to final 5%

Fibre is the best technology to bring broadband to rural areas – but it is also the most expensive, says Daniel Heery.

I recently found myself driving to the heart of Northumberland on a cold bright Spring day to attend a broadband suppliers event at Wingates Institute, kindly organised by Northumberland County Council’s broadband team. The objective of the meeting was to bring together potential suppliers of solutions with members of the community around Nunnykirk, Hollinghill and Rothley parishes so both sides could get a better understanding of the issues of getting superfast broadband into the area. The layout of BT’s network in the area means it is too technically and financially challenging to address 90 homes and farms in this area. The village hall was busy, 6 suppliers, 10 residents, local landowners, Northumbrian Water and council staff.

The event started with presentations from the County Councillor and iNorthumberland team, setting out the history of broadband in the area and how the County Council could help. Louise, a staunch campaigner for better broadband in the area, made an impassioned speech covering her travails over the last 10 years. Locals do not have the time to go back and forth to Wingates Institute to fill out government forms, update their websites and download e-mails. Schoolchildren travelling 2-3 miles to complete their myMaths homework impacts on their education and family life.

This contrasts with Newcastle, where you are only a few minutes’ walk from a coffee shop, pub or library with free WiFi. Suppliers were cautious – I asked about the potential that BT could decide to upgrade their system after another supplier had invested in a new broadband network? There was a feeling that BT would be glad to see someone else come in and the council could de-scope the area from BT’s plan.

Progress was being made – the school had secured a 4G service costing ?250/month. There was a commitment from BT to deliver a fibre service by the end of the year to part of the area. These new services were welcomed by some of the people in the hall but undermined the viability for an alternative solution which would reach Louise and her neighbours. The 4G upgrade to the local mast was now providing a service to people who do a bit of streaming, browsing and e-mails. Taking these basic customers out of the market leaves about 30 homes that would be interested in a fixed line broadband service.

This is where the wheels come off a commercial solution – the cost of building the network and delivering a high capacity broadband feed has high fixed up front costs without a guarantee of future revenue. Most of the suppliers were offering a fixed wireless solution that can do the job in the medium term. Louise had already run a small community wireless network for several years for a group of houses and knew the limitations.

Running fibre optic cables to all the homes could cost ?250K, but this would come down if locals helped lay the cables. Parishes and other notspots around the country face a number of key issues:

New developments like 4G and BT’s Community fibre are eating into the potential customers required to make a good business case for an alternative operator. Louise has been looking for a solution for the past 10 years – there is no shortage of technologies, but its hard to reach a consensus with the wider community and the council on a particular solution.

This is a risky bet – but it should be noted that plenty of other communities have pressed on and are benefiting from a solution. How to progress? I think the best technology bet is fibre – its futureproof and has the lowest operating costs BUT it is also the most expensive.

Daniel Heery is chief executive of Cybermoor, a co-operative based in Alston Moor, Cumbria, providing innovative digital services to rural areas.

For details, visit www.cybermoor.org1.


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