Connectivity in Scotland: Time to re-think the options

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Craig Scott, Business Development Director at MLL Telecom, looks at some of the challenges and opportunities around fibre north of the border.

There’s a connectivity sea-change happening in Scotland right now: Inhabitants are demanding to know why they must put up with sub-par broadband speeds and access, compared to those of their neighbours south of the border.

This was illustrated by the fallout from the recent news that Scottish premises have been deemed ineligible for the UK Government’s Universal Service Obligation (USO), despite contributing funding to the initiative. The USO pledges to deliver 10Mps broadband to 100 per cent of premises. According to Rural Economy and Connectivity Secretary Fergus Ewing “This is indicative of the UK Government’s approach to broadband rollout thus far which has been to ignore the needs of Scotland, particularly our rural areas.”

Connectivity represents both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity facing the country right now. Despite a large footprint of Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC), local authorities and their inhabitants are still battling with bandwidth constraints and the availability of infrastructure.

Currently, the Scottish government is developing its “Reaching 100” (R100) programme, with the aspiration to deliver superfast broadband access to every single Scottish premises by 2021. This is in part to address concerns around a widening town-and-country divide, with rural communities fearing being left behind due to increasing reduction in services and poor connectivity for Scotland’s remote locations. Ewing himself launched the “Up Your Street” campaign to promote more take-up of the hybrid fibre FTTC/Cable fixed line broadband.

However, copper does not go far enough to solve Scotland’s connectivity crisis on its own. Fibre is needed for increased speed, more reliability, and better performance – and can deliver gigabit broadband speeds of up to 100Mbps, well above the 24Mps minimum definition of superfast broadband.

Yet currently, only 1% of Scotland is connected to full fibre. Although England – and the UK as a whole – doesn’t fare much better with a mere 3%. Local authorities in the country – both in urban and rural areas – need more fibre infrastructure to drive connectivity for businesses and residents. And in the meantime, they need connectivity partners that are the best fit to make use of the infrastructure that is available.

Recently some ambitious local authorities have begun viewing connectivity through a different lens, as part of a transformational solution that will have tangible political, economic, social benefit, as well as a technological one.

One example of this is the recent rethink of the Wide Area Network (WAN) procurement process in Stirling, which led to the city being announced as Scotland’s fourth Gigabit City in January 2017. By working in partnership with MLL Telecom and full-fibre infrastructure builder, CityFibre, Stirling Council deployed the first phase of a state-of-the-art new full- fibre infrastructure in March 2018, and the second phase in May 2018.

By providing virtually unlimited bandwidth via full fibre connectivity, CityFibre’s investment in Stirling offers benefits to the whole community. It enables Stirling Council to explore the e-learning potential offered by Gigabit connectivity in schools and libraries, while improving the use of digital and web-based tools and services for both staff and customers. With the second phase of the project extending the full fibre connectivity to business in the city, Stirling will also benefit economically through increased competition. The vastly improved infrastructure will attract new businesses, support growth among existing firms and create jobs.

The Scottish Wide Area Network (SWAN) is a wider public sector initiative that has gone some way to providing consistent connectivity options for the NHS and Local Authorities in Scotland. Announced in 2014, the nine-year contract is now in its fourth year. Organisations have the option to join the framework by 2020, with the last point to consume the services coming in 2023.

But the market has moved on. The combination of more full fibre providers like CityFibre making investments, new technologies such as 5G and SDWAN, and funding initiatives from the Department of Culture Media & Sport DCMS), is giving public sector organisations a window of opportunity to consider their options.

For many, it will be a chance to think about how they can do things differently, and how they can engage with alternative providers to deliver services in a more efficient and cost-effective way. It’s also a chance to consider the different applications and services that they will need to deliver connectivity in the future.

For those local authorities like Stirling that are looking for a partner, the procurement of WAN connectivity services is an opportunity to properly engage with suppliers, allowing prospective partners to understand unique requirements, and giving these partners the opportunity to shape the future. This allows local authorities to procure the technology and infrastructure that will suit their own needs, as well as gaining partners that are unconstrained by frameworks, have a deep customer understanding, flexible products, and better support.

As local authorities consider whether to stay or begin the move off the SWAN network, now is the time to be ambitious. That starts with thinking about new ways to deliver much-needed connectivity infrastructure cost effectively that will also provide benefit in to the local communities in Scotland.

 

Craig ScottAs a Business Development Director, Craig is responsible for identifying and developing relationships, securing new Public Sector business opportunities and delivering sales growth for MLL in Scotland and the North. Craig has been involved in the IT and Telecommunications Sector for over 20 years, working in a variety of Business Development and Client Management roles across both the Public and Private Sectors. Craig is adept in consultative sales, problem solving and customer service, and is passionate about developing and maintaining close working relationships with our clients.

Stirling gets a spoonful of CityFibre

MLL Telecom and CityFibre have announced a new partnership to deliver gigabit fibre connections to local businesses over a new fibre network being built by the latter.

The new offering, FibreConnect, was announced during Stirling Business Week, and will build on initiatives made by the city to become more agile and increase productivity by embracing technologies such as cloud computing software, high quality video conferencing and smart office appliances. The CityFibre fibre network currently spans 24km from Bannockburn to the Stirling Agricultural centre.

The FibreConnect offer provides Internet access at speeds of 100Mbps, 500Mbps and 1000Mbps as either a monitored or fully managed service, with the promise of zero buffering. The men and women of Stirling can search for as many Haggis recipes as their hearts desire.

“Stirling is a city with big ambitions and its 3000-strong business community is no different,” said Jeremy Wastie, Head of New Business, Public Sector at MLL Telecom. “We are excited to be a driving force in aiding the city’s entrepreneurial business growth. Our ultrafast FibreConnect services will give local businesses the much-needed connectivity speeds to boost productivity and create new jobs that will ultimately benefit the entire community.”

“Full fibre is the gold standard in digital connectivity and a ‘must have’ foundation for growth and development in the digital age,” said James McClafferty, Head of regional development at CityFibre. “This makes it an especially vital asset for thriving cities like Stirling, which is ambitious to become a hotbed for digital innovation, new start-ups and business growth.”

“Businesses in Stirling have been crying out for greater digital infrastructure that can support their ambitious growth plans for some time,” said Gordon Bell, CEO of local business support organisation, STEP. “It’s very exciting to hear that ‘Gigabit City’ status will put Stirling ahead of the game in the UK for connectivity, allowing these businesses to not only grow but to take their business to the next level.”

Stirling has been receiving a fair bit of attention recently after Vodafone continued the rollout of its Gigabit broadband services in the city. Stirling is now the seventh of twelve cities to benefit from the Vodafone and CityFibre challenge to the traditional broadband players.

Mobile network experience in Scotland – in order to get it right we need to understand what is wrong

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Brendan Gill, CEO of OpenSignal, looks at the complexities of accurately measuring mobile signals.

Scotland has been struggling to keep up with the rest of the UK in terms of digital connectivity for many years. Official figures from Ofcom show that a mere 17% of Scotland has 4G mobile coverage, compared to 60% in England. And although there have been several initiatives launched by the Scottish Government to address this – such as The Mobile Action Plan, or the R100 programme pledging to deliver superfast broadband access to 100% of premises in Scotland by 2021 – the gap remains visible in key connectivity metrics.

In most cases the debate has centred around how Scotland’s consumers are being left behind. But erratic connectivity, especially in mobile services is having an impact and hurting businesses as well.

It’s being measured wrong

“Fixing” Scotland’s connectivity issue can only start once there is a clear understanding of what the problem is. Taking it a step further, if problems are not identified and quantified correctly, they serve merely as a distraction, delaying the process of finding a solution. In the wireless world, the distractors are the measurements used to quantify 4G connectivity.

The way that coverage is currently measured has a lot of limitations. Talking about 99% population coverage paints a very rosy picture of a rather grim tale.  It’s vital that the right metrics are in place to truly assess – and address – the problem. Only then can the discussions begin on how it can be fixed.

So how does the industry get it right?  One approach, from the likes of OpenSignal, is to look at time. Specifically, the percentage of time users are able to connect to an LTE signal. This draws a much more realistic picture of the everyday mobile network experience by collecting and analysing data from smartphones wherever their owners are: indoors or out, in the city or the countryside, day or night. The metric, called 4G availability, shows  Scotland (as well as the UK in general) still has a long way to go before reaching that coveted 99%.

By relying on real-world data, the availability approach eliminates the pitfalls that other coverage metrics so easily fall into: such as disregarding population density (i.e. geographic coverage) or failing to measure coverage indoors or at any location other than your home (i.e. population coverage).

Indoor coverage needs to be part of the equation

In fact, the majority of service fluctuations and black spots occur inside homes and offices. And many operators currently lack the means to track, let alone address the issue.

Population coverage is often talked about, and typically looks at: is there a signal at your doorstep? That would be great if all mobile devices were only used on doorsteps. But the reality is mobile users go inside, and there is a huge differential between the signal received outside and inside homes.

Searching for a signal at home, in the supermarket or in the Palace of Westminster itself should not be a source of frustration.  But as we look at the coverage map below (built based on real-world user data), it’s clear that Parliament’s indoor coverage is close to non-existent, while the surrounding areas all indicate strong signals.

westminster coverage

2 days less connectivity

The reality is that national 4G availability statistics are troubling – UK-wide we are talking about between 58% and 78% – and that is between the different providers. There is a big difference between this and the 99% population coverage figure that so many in the industry like to use.

As for Scotland, we were seeing around 7% less time connected to 4G compared with the UK nationwide average. It might not seem like a lot, yet 7% of the time is potentially two days per month when a mobile user in Scotland is not connected to 4G, but the UK-wide average is.

There is clearly a long list of unique challenges hindering 4G connectivity in Scotland, ranging from population spread to difficult terrain; but before the industry can start working on solving the issue, they first need to make sure that the metrics are right.

 

Brendan Gill_OpenSignal CEOBrendan Gill is the CEO of OpenSignal, a company he co-founded in 2010. He has spent over 10 years providing solutions to help people understand and improve mobile service and experience. Prior to OpenSignal, Brendan was part of the team that launched RepeaterStore in 2007, which provides signal boosting solutions to improve wireless cell and data reception in buildings, homes and vehicles. Brendan is listed in the Global Telecoms Business Power100 2017 as one of the most powerful names behind the telecoms sector. He is an accomplished speaker and has presented at leading industry events including: CTIA, Mobile World Congress, TechCrunch Mobile and the Qualcomm CEO Summit.

Passionate about empowering and supporting entrepreneurship, Brendan founded BetaFoundry, an accelerator programme offering mentors and advisors for students to encourage them to choose an alternative to the standard career path. In addition, he is one of the TechStars London mentors, and has taken the FoundersPledge to encourage tech entrepreneurs to donate to charitable causes. Brendan holds a degree in Physics and Philosophy from the University of Oxford.

Vodafone and CityFibre make Aberdeen second UK gigabit city

A couple of weeks back Vodafone announced it would be bringing full-fibre broadband to Milton Keynes as part of broad assault on the broadband scene and now the second gigabit city has been named – Aberdeen.

The initiative with partner CityFibre promises to bring gigabit speed full-fibre broadband to 12 cities in the UK, and has the chance to make some waves in the sector. While the remaining 10 cities are yet to be named, a fair assumption would be areas where download speeds are currently woeful. We had a crack at guessing where would be next, and while Aberdeen was part of our five-city shortlist, we thought Peterborough or Edinburgh. We still think that these cities will be on the Vodafone hitlist, but we were just wide of the mark with Aberdeen.

As part of the initiative a £40 million investment in full fibre infrastructure for the Granite City has been committed. While CityFibre has already laid a 90km fibre spine through the city, the pair will systematically micro-trench each street. When Milton Keynes was announced as a gigabit city, Vodafone confirmed fibre would be laid down every street irrelevant as to whether demand is there. The idea is to give the option to the customers, not seek a commitment from X amount of premises before work begins.

Fibre optic cables will be used for every stage of the connection, from the customer’s home or business to the Internet, allowing Vodafone (as the customer facing half of the partnership) to offer broadband speeds which it hopes will hit 1 Gbps. Whether these speeds will be hit remains to be seen, but considering only 3% of the UK have FTTP connections, Aberdeen will be in a very enviable position before too long. Work on delivering the city-wide fibre network will begin in July.

“Our Gigabit broadband services, delivered over CityFibre’s new full fibre networks, will help Aberdeen build on its credentials in innovation and as one of the best places to start a business,” said Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffrey. “It will also transform consumers’ daily lives through superior Internet access. We’re committed to helping businesses, entrepreneurs and residents embrace the new gigabit society in Aberdeen, the technological heart of Scotland”

“Our commitment to Aberdeen is further evidence of the action CityFibre is taking to deliver Britain’s full fibre future,” said Greg Mesch, CEO of CityFibre. “Our existing network in Aberdeen provides us with an eighteen-month head-start on a full fibre roll-out to nearly every home and business in the city. With similar FTTP backbone networks already built in over 40 UK towns and cities, our contribution to national full fibre coverage is well underway. We are getting on with the job of building Gigabit Britain – at full speed.”

While there hasn’t been a notable reaction from incumbents in Milton Keynes just yet, we would expect BT to start ramping up it G.Fast game in cities were speeds are poor. While there has been little competition in those cities to date, Vodafone could easily capture frustrated customers with a strong speed offering.

A lot will of course depend on pricing (which will be announced later in the year – Vodafone promises it will be competitive to tempt customers away from copper) and where is next on the gigabit roadshow, but these cities where terrible broadband has become the norm will welcome a disruption to the status quo.