My name is Charles Macfarlane, and I live in Shinness, near Lairg, Sutherland. Last autumn, I discovered that Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC aka VDSL) is due imminently to be rolled at the Lairg Exchange, and that this rollout is being managed by Highland & Island Enterprise (HIE). However, on making enquiries to HIE whether Shinness would be included in the areas covered by FTTC, I was both and angered and disappointed to discover that it would not be, and that the very earliest we could expect any improvement in the area's broadband services would be 2018! Accordingly, I put a leaflet around the local houses offering to arrange a petition to have us included in the forthcoming introduction of FTTC, the replies to which confirmed a comfortable majority, almost two-thirds, in favour of such action. These web pages outline the grounds for our petition, and propose a FTTC layout that would cover the neighbourhood adequately yet with the minimum relaying of existing telephone wiring.
The neighbourhood covers the postcodes IV27 4DL, IV27 4DN, and IV27 4DW. Thus, the limits of the premises deemed to be in the locality are Burnside Cottage and 6 West Shinness in the north west, Blairbuie in the north east, Colaboll in the south west, and Tirryside in the south east. Within this area, there are 77 premises in total, including 15 homes that are currently empty or holiday lets, of which 8 are mobile homes, and two new houses currently under construction, one of which has a further mobile home on site, giving 60 premises currently in full-time residential and/or business use. These include a Highlands foods business, three campsites, and 19 active crofts. The geographic centre of all of these premises is at 255351E,912671N which is a point in Achnairn some 50m to the south east of the road, nearly opposite Holmlea.
Lairg Telephone Exchange is in Church Hill Road at 258428E,906494N. According to figures at …
… our 60 premises represent 11% of the total number of subscribers at the exchange, while considering residential premises alone, our 59 (many of which are of mixed residential and business use) represent 12% of those at the exchange.
Across all our premises, the average distance by roadside cabling from the exchange is 8.75km, the
nearest is 5.68km, and the furthest is 12.20km. All premises in Shinness are connected to the
exchange by Exchange Only (EO) lines, by which is meant the copper wires
between the exchange and the premises do not pass through any local roadside telephone cabinets. This
is the chief reason why upgrading local broadband relatively would be more expensive, because whereas with
those premises already connected via an existing cabinet, FTTC can be introduced by installing a second
cabinet nearby, in areas served by EO lines, further work is required to recable local lines to go via a
new cabinet. However, as the following links make clear, this is already accepted practice, so we in
Shinness are not asking for anything exceptional, and we believe that it is geographically feasible, the
most cost effective, and above all the quickest way of bringing improved broadband speeds to our
The Problem With Exchange Only Lines
Exchange Only Lines
The above geographical details are shown on an interactive map.
Every analysis of web trends that comes out reports increasing internet use year on year, driven partly by
the demands of content, partly by the convenience that improved internet access brings
- even at the most basic level, web pages themselves become ever more
Average Page Weight Increased Another 16% In 2015
… which of itself only goes part way to explaining why the most recent Ofcom annual summary of December 2015 reports that over the previous year average monthly usage increased by 40% to 82GB/month …
Connected Nations 2015 Section 4.2 (12/2015, PDF).
This increasing dependence of society on modern technology hits rural communities with poor broadband speeds particularly hard, and in many different ways. The closure of shops in villages and even sizable towns makes internet shopping an increasing necessity, but critical pages failing to load properly can leave the customer uncertain as to whether or not an order was successfully placed. Agricultural businesses find the requirement, as now it is becoming, of going online to fill in government forms a time-consuming and error-prone chore. Businesses whose main income is tourism find it an increasing struggle to supply the sort of connectedness that guests expect. Other rural businesses find that lack of effective connectivity increases costs. Houses in remote rural areas lose value and become more difficult to sell because of lack of deliveries, lack of public transport, and lack of decent broadband, and thus the latter is one of the factors leading to the depopulation of rural areas, the increasing isolation of the population that remains, and their consequent disenfranchisement from the benefits that modern technology is often touted as being supposed to bring.
The commercial incentive to improve rural lives through the introduction of new technology, if it can be said to exist at all, works outwards from centres of population into the surrounding local areas. Although entirely understandable, nevertheless it is unequal in and of itself, but even worse is the marked tendency of commercial organisations to omit the final rural phases of the introduction of one new technology so that they can concentrate on the introduction of the next back in the centres of population where they can reap greater profits. In the current 'laissez faire' regulatory system, noone who has the power seems to think that it might be a good thing to require operators to show that they have completed the rollout of one technology across the entire country, including to rural areas, before licensing them to embark on the next!
Thus, while mobile network operators are already beginning to hype 5G, we in Shinness can receive only two of the four so-called 'national' mobile networks, one only as 2G and the other only as 3G. Further, even of these many find reception patchy and unreliable. For myself, on the 3G network, I can get a reliable signal and sometimes a download speed of 2.5Mbps in fine weather at one particular window of my home, but if there is precipitation of any kind, or if I move away from that window, then calls tend to start dropping out, testing can register download speeds so low they are displayed as 0Mbps, and, for example, the home page of John Lewis can take 5 minutes to load.
Similarly with landline technology, as can be learnt from the photographs and explanation below, for a long time even our current infrastructure has been neglected by OpenReach (OR), and from them we have not received and do not receive the same level of service that others paying the same charges as ourselves receive, simply because we live in the countryside and they live in the town, and this is without considering any further inequalities that would be brought about by the introduction of FTTC to the town alone.
I have understood from conversations with OpenReach engineers that local cabling is brittle in places, probably because of lightning strikes. However, while lightning may be considered an unavoidable natural hazard, the wider state of local cabling can only be explained by all of human thoughtlessness, neglect, and error. Sections of cabling and inspection chambers were never adequately buried in the first place, and thus are exposed on the verge, where they get obscured by vegetation in the summer and then smashed up by verge trimmers. Despite repeated requests and reminders from local residents, 'temporary' repairs left lying on the verge are never revisited and made permanent and reburied. Inspection covers are not properly replaced, and inspection chambers are left open to the weather and fill with water. In particular, there are near Eil Nan Ron and 20 Achfrish, I believe after initially a lightning strike and then later verge trimming, smashed covers, waterlogged inspection chambers, and sections of 'temporary' cable repair lying in loops on the verge (top picture), and, from the storms of January 2014, another 'temporary' repair outside Hale Nook, Achnairn (middle picture), and also an inspection chamber damaged by verge trimming further down the road (bottom picture). Despite repeated reminders and complaints from a number of residents over a considerable period of time, none of this damage has ever been properly made good and reburied. All in all, a proportion of the local cabling is in such a wretched state that most with any technological knowledge would consider it unacceptable even for just a voice line, let alone a data line.
The poor state of the local telephone cabling means that Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) speeds are entirely unpredictable here - exceptionally, one local resident gets 2.5Mbps, but those furthest from the exchange can not get ADSL broadband at all, while the average seems to be between 0.5 & 1.0Mbps. But even at any one household speed can vary significantly from week to week, even hour to hour - for most of the early part of 2016 my own was steady around 1.45Mbps, then a series of faults occurred and it dropped to around 0.75Mbps for most of the next four months, but varied greatly around that, one time being lower than dialup at 0.25Mbps, then for about a month it was as good as it's ever been at around 1.9Mbps, but now it's back to dialup speeds at 0.5Mbps. OR have never been able to give any convincing explanation as to the cause of such wild and unpredictable behaviour, and if continually pressed to improve matters they tend just to declare a given fault a 'Long Line Issue' which they seem to think absolves them from any responsibility for fixing it. Meanwhile, online rumour has it that for every 3 cabling faults that OR engineers fix successfully, they disturb another line in the same cable harness, cabinet, or inspection chamber, and so create a fourth fault.
It is clear that if Shinness is ever to receive a better broadband service, commercial incentive alone is not going to provide it in the foreseeable future.
One might have hoped that governments would be interested in reversing the above commercial trend of working from the inside out by introducing policies that work from the outside in, but, as follows, the political incentive is to be seen to be helping the maximum number of people in the minimum amount of time for the minimum expenditure, which again works from the inside out, and, rather than narrowing the divide between town and country, actually exacerbates and widens it. Current plans to exclude Shinness from FTTC at Lairg are a typical case in point …
The UK Government, through Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), part of the Department for Media, Culture, & Sport (DCMS), has been providing funding with the aim of:
BDUK has three schemes to deliver these aims:
This is aimed at individual small office or home (SOHo)
customers who cannot receive broadband speeds over 2Mbps. Government subsidises the
installation of equipment, and ongoing costs to the customer beyond £400pa:
The Government's aim is to provide superfast broadband for at least 95% of UK premises by the end
of 2017. It is under this scheme that FTTC is being introduced at the Lairg Exchange, and, as
elsewhere in the Highlands, it is managed by Highlands & Islands Enterprise
… on behalf of Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) …
Feeding a Shinness postcode, IV27 4DN, into the latter organisation's website checker suggests that Superfast Broadband is 'coming soon', but the disappointing reply to my previous enquiry to HIE, prompted by my own use of the checker some months ago, makes it clear that in reality this is not true:
"I have checked your details and you are connected to the Lairg Exchange area on an
Exchange Only line. However, your premises are at too great a distance from Lairg
to receive any benefit during this first phase of the roll-out project (up to December
With the budget and technology available we have taken coverage to as many places as we can. Some places are currently beyond the reach of the main roll-out - primarily because they are too far from an enabled cabinet or point.
However, this does not mean we have forgotten about you. There are a number of potential future solutions:
1. You may see an improvement as the technology develops and increases the distance the service can travel.
2. We are already scoping out how a potential future phase funding for the fibre project may help us reach further into even smaller clusters of homes and businesses.
3. Technologies used for the main roll-out may simply not be the most appropriate way to reach you. HIE, Community Broadband Scotland colleagues and others are working on what options might look like in this situation - this includes superfast fixed wireless options amongst other things.
I would say that at the earliest you may be included in any plans would be a future phase of the programme. Recently, the Scottish Government made a commitment to reach 100% of premises in Scotland with superfast broadband by 2021. We, as part of the Digital Scotland Superfast team, don't yet fully know how this will be delivered, but we do expect it to be with a mix of technologies and projects. Later this year a review of all the areas which can't currently get a superfast service will be run and then from this a full procurement exercise can be conducted with work expected to start in 2018."
The Government is supporting investment in mobile infrastructure to improve coverage for voice calls and text messages for the final 0.3-0.4% of UK premises that don't currently have it.
The UK Government has been consulting on a broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) to force providers to supply on demand a minimum level of speed, the current suggested minimum is 10Mbps. The response of Ofcom's Advisory Committee for Scotland (ACS) is particularly relevant to us in Shinness, as it contains the following quotes:
"The ACS considers that, if it is not a factor in defining primary legislation, there needs to be an early
commitment in the USO to a delivery strategy where the most remote and rural areas are those that should
receive the first and greatest priority among the areas to be brought up to the USO basic level
- moving from the edge to the middle ground, rather than extending from
the middle ground out to the edge."
"The ACS believes that, consistent with the government's initial pronouncement, a USO with an absolute minimum download speed of 10Mbps, should be a fundamental objective in primary legislation."
The last paragraph of the HIE email quoted above refers to a Scottish Government (SG) policy to reach the final 5% of Scotland by 2021. Currently, the early stages of this project are being 'scoped' by Community Broadband Scotland (CBS), and I have been and plan to remain in contact with their local representatives. However, from Shinness' point of view, this project looks as though it's going to take too long for us willingly to wait for it to reach us.
When making a decision that may have to last into the indefinite future, it is important to have a realistic view of the different value for money to the customer of solutions based on different technologies. However, unbiased comparison of internet service provision within one technology is difficult enough, across differing technologies it's a minefield, because:
Notwithstanding the above, I have derived three cost comparisons by averaging Internet Service Provider (ISP) charges over five different technologies - ADSL, FTTC, community wireless projects part funded by HIE, mobile phone, and satellite - comparing monthly cost 'pro rata', by which I mean per Megabit per second (Mbps) of download speed per Gigabyte (GB) of download limit, making three different assumptions about the value of unlimited downloads to end users, the first based on the lowest common ISP limit above the current average monthly use reported by Ofcom, two others that may be regarded as projecting into the future:
The results show that FTTC technology always gives the best value for money, mobile and satellite technologies always give the worst and can never be considered to give good value for money, while the relative value for money between ADSL and the projects part funded by HIE is dependent on the value assumed for 'unlimited' - the higher this value, the relatively cheaper ADSL becomes. As people's use tends to go up over time, it must follow that the relative value for money of the projects part funded by HIE must fall over time, unless they are regularly upgraded to allow more generous limits. Of course, that assumes that ADSL is actually an option at a given locality, but for many in the most remote parts of the Highlands, currently at least, it isn't - in Shinness, most people have the choice of ADSL, but some do not; however we believe that our plan, if implemented, would make FTTC available to our entire community.
|Unlimited = 100GB||Unlimited = 250GB||Unlimited = 500GB|
|HIE Part Funded Wireless Projects||0.015||0.015||0.015|
One way of removing the variability caused by the rather arbitrary meanings attributed to 'unlimited' in the above comparison would be to compare only tariffs that offer unlimited downloads, but against that must be placed the objection that technologies that do not offer unlimited downloads cannot be so compared - accordingly, because no mobile tariffs offering unlimited downloads were found, while those HIE part-funded projects that do not state a download limit nevertheless all state in the small print that they will take action against excessive use, both mobile and wireless technologies must be excluded. Consequently, the following comparison is between the cheapest packages offering unlimited downloads from a variety of ISPs across the three remaining technologies, satellite being included on the basis of the cheapest package that offered an unlimited download element, in every case a package offering limited daytime but unlimited overnight downloads.
Again, the results, both pro rata and price per calendar month, show that landline-based technology always gives better value for money, and that satellite is a very expensive way to obtain broadband, one that is only likely to be of any interest to those who cannot obtain usable broadband speeds via other cheaper means.
|Monthly||Pro Rata||Monthly||Pro Rata||Monthly||Pro Rata|
|Avonline - Avanti||£65.95||£0.044|
|Avonline - Tooway||£54.95||£0.025|
All prices correct as end of November 2016, but they change often.
The conclusions that can be drawn from the above analysis are that landline-based technologies offer the most certain value for money to the end customer, while to many wireless would be an extra rather than a replacement cost, and is most suited to areas so remote that even ADSL cannot reach, which is not the case in Shinness. Mobile phone and satellite technologies are not even in the ball-park unless and until they become considerably cheaper.
I have drawn up a table (appended below) listing all the addresses in the neighbourhood, and for each calculated its distance by roadside cabling both currently from the exchange and from the nearest possible cabinet in each of several possible FTTC plans that I've investigated, of which the best is described below. A significant constraint is the remoteness of the cottages in Blairbuie and by the loch side from everyone else, yet it has proved possible to supply both adequately from the same cabinet as Achfrish and Achnairn. It is not possible to avoid at least some recabling, because Achnairn is supplied by two different routes back to the exchange, though if it should turn out that the introduction of further small cabinets than are proposed here would actually be cheaper than recabling, that could achieve even better results than expected from this plan.
As shown on the accompanying interactive local map, where it may be displayed by clicking the checkbox in the drop-down in the top right-hand corner, the plan proposes three 'onesie' cabinets, and some recabling of those areas of Achnairn and Achfrish which already have cabling problems.
The first cabinet, Cabinet A, would be at 256586E,910284N, the junction of Tirryside with the A838, and would serve Colaboll and Tirryside without any need for recabling. Cabinet B would be at 255556E,912852N on the bend at the top of Achnairn hill, and would serve Achfrish, Achnairn, Blairbuie, and the cottages down by Loch Shin, to which end its position has been chosen to be exactly half way between the most remote premises that it would be expected to serve; inevitably, some recabling of Achfrish and Achnairn would be required to accomplish this, but, as described earlier, the cabling in this area is already in need of significant attention. Cabinet C would be at 253500E,914200N at the junction of West Shinness hill with the A838, and would serve West Shinness without any need for recabling.
|Distance (km)||Speed (Mbps)|
|Number of premises likely to receive less than …||Threshold Speed (Mbps)||Premises|
This plan is probably near the best that realistically can be achieved using FTTC technology. It would bring the entirety of Shinness within the 2km distance considered the economic limit for FTTC, and likewise compliant with the government's proposed Universal Service Obligation of 10Mbps, and more than three-quarters of it compliant with the Superfast Broadband policy of 24Mbps.
The Shinness community submits and commends this plan to DSSB/HIE, and hopes this submission will be judged favourably, and that FTTC will be brought to our community within at most a few months.
|Area||Address||Easting||Northing||Distance From Exchange (km)||Distance From The Cabinet (km)||Max FTTC Speed (Mbps)|
|Achfrish||Eil Nan Ron||256438||911893||7.43||1.37||22.0|
|Achnairn||14 Alt Na Sorag||254684||912344||8.64||1.19||24.5|
|Achnairn||27 The Sheiling||255638||912778||8.62||0.20||80.0|
|Achnairn||27 The Sheiling MH1||255682||912752||8.57||0.21||80.0|
|Achnairn||Mid Rose Cottage||255484||912992||8.89||0.20||80.0|
|Achnairn||Sutherland Game & Shellfish||255235||912633||9.11||0.44||69.0|
|Achnairn||c/o Sutherland Game & Shellfish||255288||912669||9.19||0.38||69.0|
|Collaboll||1 The Cottages||256386||910138||5.68||0.28||76.0|
|Collaboll||2 The Cottages||256365||910140||5.71||0.30||76.0|
|Shinness||Lodge Keepers Cottage||253626||914324||11.09||0.32||76.0|
|Tirryside||3 A Half||256871||910852||6.07||0.67||43.0|
|Tirryside||3 The Cottage||256856||910868||6.10||0.70||43.0|
|Tirryside||4 Pondside MH1||256960||910890||6.16||0.76||35.0|
|Tirryside||4 Pondside MH2||256965||910900||6.16||0.76||35.0|
|Tirryside||7 Little Achfrish||257167||911439||6.76||1.36||22.0|
|West Shinness||3 The Cottage||253181||914923||11.61||0.84||35.0|
|West Shinness||5 Woodside||253298||914739||11.41||0.65||51.0|
|West Shinness||8 Tigh Na Clough||253497||915058||11.78||1.02||28.0|
|West Shinness||9 Airde View||253569||914978||11.68||0.92||31.0|
|West Shinness||Birch View||253663||914690||11.35||0.59||51.0|
|West Shinness||Burnside Cottage||252921||915419||12.20||1.44||22.0|
|West Shinness||The Croft House||252895||915296||12.08||1.32||23.0|
|Number of premises likely to receive less than …||Threshold Speed (Mbps)||Premises|