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Gigabit network is more than a fringe benefit for city of Edinburgh

As CityFibre begins a 150km fibre dig in Edinburgh, local businesses and the city council outline their objectives and plans for ultrafast broadband

Frequently listed among the better-connected cities in the UK when it comes to provision of superfast broadband, Edinburgh is not immediately the city that comes to mind when you think about the places most in need of broadband investment.

Indeed, according to Edinburgh City Council member Frank Ross, the city has been struggling to find businesses that are dissatisfied enough with their current broadband service to want to take up the government’s £3,000 broadband connection voucher grants.

Nevertheless, says Ross, there is always a danger that if “you stand still, you start going backwards”. A recent survey of IT decision makers in Scotland suggested that more than half thought their broadband service was generally inferior to that received south of the border, and Edinburgh has been slipping down the league tables of late.

This now looks set to change for the better. Earlier in 2015, pure fibre infrastructure supplier CityFibre announced a 50km fibre network, the Edinburgh Core, to be constructed in partnership with local internet service provider (ISP) Commsworld.

At the start of September 2015, this contract was extended when the council signed up to connect 294 of its sites in an agreement worth £5.6m, which would replace an ageing and capacity-constrained copper circuits provided by BT in a seven-year deal that comes with an option to extend to 19 years, making the total contract potentially worth £16m.

CityFibre, known for its Gigabit City programme, has already set up programmes to bring fibre broadband to Coventry, Peterborough, York and Aberdeen.

The first phase of the network covers the city centre and is currently constructed under CityFibre’s Well Planned City model. The model allows the supplier to alter its plans on the fly in response to where it sees high levels of demand from potential customers. When complete, it hopes to bring gigabit speeds to more than 7,000 businesses.

“CityFibre was looking for cities to engage with, cities in which there would be a clear commercial return on investment. They recognised that Edinburgh is booming and out-performing every city in the UK outside London by some distance,” says Ross.

CityFibre’s development manager James McClafferty – formerly with BT – says bringing pure fibre broadband services to Edinburgh has become his “biggest and shiniest project”.

“My ambition is to take CityFibre to Scotland’s seven largest cities: Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth, Stirling and Edinburgh,” he tells Computer Weekly.

“Edinbugh is the capital city, it has the Fringe Festival, it has all sorts of flavours you don’t get elsewhere in Scotland. Outside of London and Frankfurt, it probably has the biggest banking sector in Europe. Growing up around that is a tech-savvy group of businesses, startups and app developers – even gaming.

“This is about taking existing businesses into a new zone and scaling them up. They need resilience and reliable, high-capacity connectivity,” he says.

Although CityFibre’s ambition is to deliver a 150km network around and throughout Edinburgh, McClafferty is reluctant to suggest he might stop at that point because “if the growth forecasts are true, we’re going to need more than that – the appetite for fibre is palpable”.

“It also helps that we have a local SME [small to medium-sized enterprise] partner in Commsworld as they know the turf. We always prefer to partner with a local ISP, and Commsworld has been established for 20 years and has a huge customer base in Edinburgh that they can commit,” says McClafferty.

Council support

The dig began early in the summer of 2015 – although it stopped for a few weeks to accommodate the annual Fringe – and the first customers are due to be connecting during the autumn of 2015, if everything goes according to plan.

Fortunately for CityFibre, the city council has been more than supportive in helping it secure permission to start digging up the streets, says McClafferty.

At Edinburgh City Council, Ross says he believes he has an obligation to be supportive: “Every time we dig up a road we get in trouble, but we are trying to take a pragmatic view when it comes to companies willing to make a significant investment in Edinburgh at no cost to the public purse. We feel we have a duty to facilitate that.

“We have the highest educated workforce in the UK, and adding high-quality, future-proof infrastructure makes it easier to continue that trend and attract more investment into Edinburgh.

“We are probably the best-connected city in the UK and one of the best in Europe – that makes us a very attractive proposition for many organisations,” he says.

New customers

One Edinburgh-based business that has already committed to beefing up its infrastructure is luxury hotel chain Apex Hotels, for which the upgrade is coming at exactly the right time.

Apex IT director Andrew Jacques says: “We are running a local area network [LAN] infrastructure, which is coming to its end-of-life. We are looking at the network options available to us and CityFibre’s gigabit options allows us to think outside the box.”

Apex is a family owned business set-up in 1996. It owns four properties in Edinburgh and hotels in Dundee and London, with more due to open in Bath and Glasgow. It has gone through multiple network setups – starting in the late-1990s with a 56Kbps dialup modem – as expectations around connectivity in the hospitality sector have changed.

“The biggest driver for us is guest services. We’ve gone through various iterations of guest internet – at one time we even charged for it,” says Jacques.

“We started to offer broadband inclusive in the room rate in 2008. Now it’s an expectation of the guest that it is not only free, but free, stable and fast.”

Apex currently takes a 100Mbps service from Commsworld, which gives guests speeds of around 10Mbps down in their rooms, or 15Mbps with a fair wind, according to Jacques.

The firm now sees an opportunity to future-proof guest network services and keep pace with its competitors in top London hotel properties, where guests can regularly experience much faster speeds in their rooms.

Apex hopes to have its first Edinburgh location online in 2015, and its other three city properties by early 2016.

However, connectivity in a large hotel does not just support guests. With an ageing LAN infrastructure, Apex is now looking at ways to improve its business processes wholesale.

Currently, it completes site-to-site backups overnight, in a lengthy process that must be carefully managed to avoid affecting any guests who might be online at the same time. This problem will disappear with gigabit fibre.

According to Jacques, Apex currently hosts its servers on-premise, but now has the option to host them in a datacentre or on-premise with failover back to a datacentre, and will be able to explore more options around cloud and related services.

“We just rolled out Office 365, so we are finding more and more collaboration and video, staff messaging, unified communications and so on, bringing more bandwidth requirement on the corporate side,” he adds.

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