Scottish broadband: More than a highland fling

Satellite broadband is helping businesses in the Scottish highlands and islands stay connected.

Satellite broadband is helping businesses in the Scottish highlands and islands stay connected.

A large proportion of the population are unable to access broadband through traditional ADSL channels, so new technologies for gaining access to broadband internet are springing up all round the country, as businesses demand ways to get online, and fast.
David Clough lives on the Argyll coast on the Atlantic seaboard of western Scotland, in a house in the forest where his only power comes from a 35m wind turbine. Because he is too far from the UK National Grid, he is also unable to access BT's phone lines. Yet Clough runs a successful online recruitment business from home, getting web access through a BT satellite dish in the field outside his house.

He said the biggest hassle is making sure the cows and horses do not knock the dish over - it has to be precisely positioned to aim for a gap in the trees to keep the connection. But otherwise the system works well.

"It's nothing like ADSL, for surfing speed, but it's good for downloading big databases," Clough said. His company, Latitude 56, hosts its three websites from a rented server in London, but all other work is done by Clough and his brother, who lives a mile away along the coast in Argyll and has his own satellite connection.

Much farther north, at the top end of the Shetland Island of Yell, between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, Elizabeth and Tony Gott run a craft centre and genealogy research centre, and much of the work is done using their own satellite system. Tourists and locals are also welcome to use the Gott's computers for fast internet access.

The Gott's BT-run satellite broadband was set up two years ago, with a grant from local development agency Shetland Enterprise to cover the £850 charge for the dish itself and the installation costs.

Installation was handled by local Internet supplier ZetNet Services. The monthly fee to BT is twice that of ADSL, at £60 per month, but still considerably less than any other provider is offering, Tony Gott said.

Seven computers, a mix of PCs and Macs, are using the system and Gott believed he could add another three. Wireless networking is also an option, he said, although his attempts at this to date have not been very successful.

Poor weather and atmospheric conditions can cause problems, Elizabeth Gott said. "High pressure systems or heavy cloud cover can be enough to lose it."

The very fact of using a satellite does bring challenges, Tony Gott said. "We only get speeds of about 400Kbps. There are restrictions because of the latency. There's a delay of about three-quarters of a second to the satellite, and so things like video conferencing would be difficult. There's not much demand for that at the moment, but I think there will be in rural areas in future."

Gott is interested in a new system being proposed for the Shetland Islands. ZetNet chief executive officer Ian Brown is planning to set up a wireless broadband service, under a new company called Shetland Broadband, which will cover most of the Shetland Islands, starting with the main town of Lerwick.

The service, which uses base stations around the islands and small antennae at the customers' sites, will begin operating in a matter of weeks and should take about a year to become completely operational.

Both satellite and wireless services are ideal for businesses because they offer a symmetric service so that people can upload files as easily as they can download. The basic service will be a 512Bbps service, but up to 2Mbps is available "or even higher, depending on how deep your pockets are", Brown said.

Prices have not yet been set, but Brown hoped to be able to offer a basic service for about £35 a week, with a £200 to £300 set-up cost.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, local company ABC Broadband is testing wireless broadband in Royal Deeside. 

"We'll never get traditional [ADSL] broadband here, so we are trialling a commercial point to multipoint wireless broadband service, which will use a mast belonging to NTL Group," said managing director Ian Fletcher. 

"Customers will need a small antenna, small enough that it doesn't need planning permission, and we'll deliver a service from a minimum of 512Kbps in both directions. The antennae can handle 11Mbps, but we don't think anyone will want that!"

One of ABC's trial customers, sustainability consultant John Forster, runs his business from a "chaumer" or stone hut near his house in Finzean, in northeastern Scotland.

As the NTL mast is not yet transmitting ABC's service, ABC has set up an 8sq km radio-based wireless network, using on a satellite connection to cover the Finzean area.

The service has totally changed how Forster does business. He does a lot of work with councils around Scotland, and it is much easier to arrange video conferencing for meetings than to travel around the country.

"I spend a lot of time working from home and I'm uploading large files as well as doing a lot of searching and downloading," he said.

To date, he has used an ISDN line, linked to the nearest ISDN-enabled exchange 18km away, but is much happier with the wireless service he has been receiving.

BT, too, has been experimenting with wireless broadband over radio waves and has some trial customers in Ballingry, Fife, but was not prepared to have any of these customers talk about the service so far.

The service offers access using a low-powered antenna on the outside of a house, connected by a cable to the user's PC. The system works using point-to-multipoint radio in the 5.8GHz spectrum to connect back to the exchange, BT said in December 2003, when testing began.

As another delivery option, Scottish and Southern Electricity (SSE) has been offering broadband over power lines to customers in selected sites in Scotland to test the technical and commercial viability of the service.

A modem can be plugged into any power socket in the house or office, and connects the user's computer with SSE's local substation, where it is connected to the internet.

The initial technical trials went well in Cambeltown, in the extreme southeastern point of the mainland, and Crieff, in the southern Highlands, said SSE spokesman Denis Kerby. Commercial trials have now begun in Stonehaven on the northeast coast, as well as in Winchester in the south of England.

For £29 a month, consumers receive1Mbps symmetric service, Kerby said. Business users are charged according to their usage.

Angus Armstrong uses the service in his engineering consultancy to upload and download complex engineering drawings - something that was impossible before the service became available. All drawings had to be sent by mail.

"I didn't even use the internet much before, except for e-mail. It was too much of a trudge, even to check train times," he said.

Now, Armstrong can work with a customer in Ireland, sending e-mail and drawings back and forth as needed, as easily as if they were in the same office.

"I've got a feeling that I have the best service in Crieff - I've heard variable reports, but mine is great. I can see the substation from my desk, so that might help, being so near," he said. He does notice a slowing of speed at times when many Crieff residents are online, he said. 

If businesses in rural Scotland can run successful broadband-based businesses, despite the hills, forests and other natural obstacles facing satellite and other services, there is nothing to hold back users elsewhere, say Scottish users.

Broadband access, however it is provided, "is a revolution for small traders", Clough said. "You don't need to be in the centre of things, you can run a business from anywhere."

Gillian Law writes for IDG News Service

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