An Auld Sang

One of the satisfying aspects of running a blog is the quality of response it can elicit. It doesn’t matter if the replies agree or not with the original but that they are insightful and written to inform (I get plenty of the other kind). I have broken out this contribution to Alasdair Stephen’s blog because it lends perspective and analysis to the topic as well as a different outlook and optimism. My thanks to Steven Asaneilean in Skye. He writes:

Housing is a long-standing issue in Skye and elsewhere – as it was 20 years ago. I, like Alasdair, could no longer afford to buy the land and build the house that I did in 1998 (land cost then £18,000, now £70,000 for example).

But the problems begin when we look at these challenges to rural areas in isolation. We need an umbrella approach that looks at housing, transport, school, sustained (and well paid) employment, etc.

I am sceptical too about Alasdair’s faith in IT. My own interest is in healthcare delivery to remote communities. To quote a recent iScot article:

“The Dewar Committee Report of 1912 led to the formation of the Highlands and Islands Medical Scheme which itself formed the blueprint for the NHS over 40 years later.

One of the issues highlighted by the Report was the poverty of telecommunications in rural areas – “There is abundant evidence to show that liberal extension of telephone communication in connection with the medical service would be a great public boon, and pre-eminently in the case of insular and remote centres where a trained nurse is stationed. She could discuss a case with the doctor and take his detailed instructions. At present efforts are often made to communicate by telegraph, which for purposes of medical inquiry and advice, is cumbersome and unsatisfactory. The Committee were surprised to be told that the Post Office was contemplating the withdrawal of telegraph service from some of the remote Western Islands. We strongly deprecate any such action”.

Sadly 100 years later perhaps not much has changed. The Offcom report “Connected Nations 2015 (Scotland)” found that “it remains the case that the individual nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as rural England, see lower availability of communication services”.

On every measure Scotland fares worse than the rest of the UK. For “old fashioned” 2G voice coverage Scotland stands at 95% compared to 98% in England and 97% for the UK as a whole. For outdoor 3G voice and data the figure for Scotland is 79% compared to 88% for the UK and 91% for England. And for superfast broadband coverage the figures are 73%, 83% and 84% respectively.

But when we “drill down” to rural Scotland the differences are even starker. The coverage for super fast broadband in rural Scotland is as little as 31% and whilst urban Scotland enjoys average download speeds of 31Mbits/sec in rural Scotland the figure is only 11Mb/s. Overall in Scotland only about 14% of premises are unable to get download speeds in excess of 10Mb/s. But in rural Scotland it’s 57%, with Argyll and Bute fairing even worse at 70% and the Western Isles at a whopping 90%.

Around 20% of premises in Scotland are complete or partial “not spots” for indoor voice and outdoor data coverage. But in rural Scotland the figure is 73%.

Dr Andrew Inglis, a Consultant in Emergency Medicine who works for Scotland’s Emergency Medical Retrieval Service, says “a modern reliable mobile phone network across remote and rural Scotland would benefit the NHS in terms of improved quality of healthcare and reduced costs. The use of phone, camera, video and computer technology can enhance the delivery and sustainability of locally delivered care with savings in time and cost. Rural general practice is challenging with recruitment and logistics difficulties. Communication is a key issue. Out-of-hours cover for remote general practice can be problematic and many rural areas have concerns regarding emergency ambulance provision”. He distributes regular updates on communication issues but hasn’t done so now for about 11 months. When asked why recently he said it was because nothing had really changed in that time.

There is a growing body of evidence from across the world as to the value of out of hospital photographic and video links e.g. with road traffic accidents and other case of trauma, dermatological conditions, etc.

In addition, the ability to transmit data remotely can be invaluable – a ECG in someone with chest pain or the home monitoring of someone with a chronic medical condition – reducing the need for costly and time consuming visits to hospital clinics and allowing early intervention from local primary healthcare teams. A project in the Western Isles showed that the use of such technology reduced appointment cancellations and as a result reduced travel costs for visiting consultants.

A poor rural mobile network prevents communities from taking advantage of these advances in technology and ends up costing the NHS more.

In 2015 the Scottish Government, working in partnership with COSLA, BT, Highlands & Islands Enterprise and the EU Regional Development Fund, launched an ambitious £412 million project aiming to extend high speed broadband to around 95% of Scotland by the end of March 2018. But a target of 95% of the population still excludes quarter of a million people.

And there are major challenges for delivering such services to rural Scotland compared to other rural parts of the UK. For example, longer line lengths and longer distances from exchanges results in serious signal deterioration between the fibre cabinet and the end users of the service.

The Scottish Government’s programme is being monitored by Audit Scotland who published their latest update on 18th August 2016. It talked about the “good progress” being made but acknowledged that “extending coverage to rural areas remains a challenge”. So far the Government scheme is ahead of target but “the remainder of the roll out will be more challenging”.

Caroline Gardner, Scotland’s Auditor General said “It’s encouraging to see good progress being made in rolling out fibre broadband. However, there is a lot still to be done by the Scottish Government if it is to achieve its vision of a world class digital infrastructure, particularly in improving download speeds in rural areas. It’s important that it continues to monitor the cost and progress of broadband roll out so that these communities aren’t excluded”.

There is also another potential “dark spot” on the horizon over which Scottish Government has no control.

The Emergency Services Network (ESN) is the means by which emergency services communicate within and among themselves. The UK Government put the current Airwaves service up for tender and awarded the contract for providing a new system to EE – a company which recently advised some customers in rural Scotland to switch to alternative providers as they could no longer guarantee a service in their locality. It’s clear that if EE are to match the existing Airwave service they will have to significantly improve their current level of remote rural coverage.

Those of us working in remote rural healthcare can look with some degree of envy at other parts of the world. The following was gleaned from a recent email exchange with international colleagues.

In Labrador, Canada telehealth via 3G wireless is provided to all remote communities and between a general hospital in Goose Bay and a specialist hospital in St Johns, Newfoundland. This service is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The emergency department in Goose Bay uses telehealth to support the management of cardiac arrest or major trauma by remote teams on the ground. The Labrador telehealth system also supports primary care in the management of acute and chronic disease and provides access to specialist opinion. The service is felt to save money and save lives.

Meanwhile remote rural healthcare workers in Queensland, Australia use telemedicine as a routine part of their medical practice. Tiny Thursday Island in the Torres Strait routinely uses telemedicine to link with specialist centres over 1000Km away.

And a conference held in Inverness earlier this year heard how a community-led health service uses telecommunication to support healthcare assistants to provide services to remote Alaskan communities sometimes with as few as 20 households; in northern Sweden the remote area of Norrbotten, an area larger than Scotland but with only quarter of a million people, has universal 4G coverage; the Peruvian part of the Amazon basin mobile phones, charged with solar energy, are being used to help local women to provide healthcare in their own villages; in Kenya nomadic people are using mobile phones to access healthcare consultations remotely; and in Rwanda they are aiming to provide 4G coverage to over 95% of their population to allow a new generation of doctors and healthcare workers to work in remote parts of that country.

British Telecom seems to be aware of the challenges. They have recently launched a trial project covering only 20 household in the Township of North Tolsta in Lewis. A new technology, Long Reach VSDL, aims to overcome the loss of speed caused by the long distances from the fibre cabinet to the end users.

Other rural communities in Scotland are taking matters into their own hands. The local community development trust on the island of Coll have teamed up with the Scottish Futures Trust and Vodafone to have a community-owned mast providing 3G and 4G signals for the island as an alternative solution to the provision of broadband.

In Argyll a community-led and community-owned project, GigaPlus Argyll is being supported by Highlands & Island Enterprise in their attempts to download speeds from 2Mb/s to as much as 50Mb/s in Colonsay, Mull, Iona, Jura, Islay, Lismore and Craignish.

So whilst the doubts of Hollyrood’s opposition parties and the caution expressed by Audit Scotland are undoubtedly justified there are definite glimmers of hope out there. And perhaps by 2020 we here in rural Scotland can have the kind of telecommunications network that other remote parts of the world already take for granted.

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20 thoughts on “An Auld Sang

  1. London: 1.2 Miles east of the Gherkin – extremely ‘rough’ area, poverty seen daily.

    6Mb/s internet – up//down constantly.

    No market – no chance. Everywhere it seems.

    • That’d be exchange-only (EO) lines which is a different issue.

      In NW Scotland it makes no sense at all to have a copper (mainly overhead) network given the costs of winter maintenance – ie repairs.

      You can’t run metallic cable bundles via the roadside drainage ditches because someone will either steal them or water ingress will push up costs.

      You can run microwave links but they degrade in heavy rain and are prone to falling over in gales. Who’d have thought that mmmm? 🙂

      So you run optical fibre in armoured cable in the roadside drainage ditches. Once its in then barring clueless digger drivers its sorted. If they do break it then its a hell of a lot easier to remake a couple of fibre-optic cables than a 250-pair metallic cable.

      Also it costs bugger all (well a lot less) if its a community thing like B4RN – – where people will dig a bit themselves etc. The B4RN people are quite willing to offer advice to other community fibre people – one of them (Walter) is often on the forums over at

      • No doubt you missed the point. The market is the driver. I worked in the industry in an ISP during the ADSL rollout – technical. Indeed, from stingers & radius servers in exchanges – richer areas 1st, poor last. Green box upgrades … same thing.

        This is simply a case of legislating for coverage – 4G .. 5G and punishing is its not covered. If Aberdeen can’t get good signals .. something is painfully wrong.

        Cabling as you note, is a ‘lost’ cause, but then, XG.FAST and getting close enough for a high speed localized service is probably the best option. Having run rural microwave services, the feasibility of 4G off the back of ‘close’ cabling is where things should be directed.

  2. Very interesting (and very detailed) article on broadband by Lesley Riddoch in The National:

  3. This is yet another occasion where mention of Argyll & Bute comes with problems! Personally, my t’internet is reasonable, most of the time. But many here are lucky at time to get 1MB and as for phone coverage…nae chance of even 2G!

    Luckily, the lecky going off periodically is less troublesome now but we “has lotz of issues” here in beautiful Argyll that are slowly improving…

    I know of first responders using old Nokia 3210’s as they give better coverage. Aye, great stuff eh! 🙂

  4. In rural Caithness we’re getting 250 – 300kb at best, but 150 normally. It slows down in the evenings, and if there’s a fault on the cable. Less then 50k sometimes. I’ve been told there’s no chance the exchange will ever get a fibre connection.

    The cable to the exchange is 25 years old it must be all patches by now with cattle, diggers and tractors damaging it. There’s a newer cable to the next house along, but the engineer left it lying on the ground, (and hooked in some bushes) 10 years ago and it’s just grown in where it fell.

    BT’s service is hellish, seemingly they only have 4 engineers to cover the whole of Caithness and Sutherland. If there was a practical alternative for broadband I’d get rid of the landline as quick as I could

  5. I was in a remote part of the Philippines several years ago as in nor way to except by an off-road vehicle and then a boat. It was part of that archipelago that you could still call third world because of the gripping levels of poverty and so on. Yet its communications to the outside world were better than what I presently get in the North East of Scotland far less Skye.

    Heck my dongle for my lap top barely works at all in parts of the city of Aberdeen.

  6. The obvious solution, alluded to by Lesley Riddoch, is to change the terms of the licence of BT et al; 100% coverage by a certain date or you’re out/fined etc. The universal service obligation.

  7. Well given that OfCom have now gone for the legal seperation of Openreach from BT that isn’t going to happen.

    Don’t get me wrong, Openreach have been appalling but that was because BT Group ran it as a cash cow. Liv Garfield ran it into the ground, got her bonuses & moved onto Severn Trent – guess who my water supplier is!

    People get confused by what bit of BT does what. This is a very simplistic “idiots guide” to BT :

    Openreach = the guys who deal with faults between the “exchange” and you. They own the “last mile” part of the network – ie copper lines (for now). These are the only BT people you will ever see outside an office/datacentre & their skillset is usually limited (SFIs have more skills);

    Wholesale = the guys who run the network between exchanges & out to the internet. They own the network which the phone & broadband services work on. As the name suggests they sell wholesale access to third party ISPs/telecos from AAISP through to Zen;

    Group = management & research. Group milks the other wings revenue & then decides what to do with those funds.

    • Oh and BT Retail obviously who sell to consumers (Infinity1/2/etc). They effectively have zero costs other than customer service/advertising as whatever they pay is retained within BT.

  8. Thank you, Derek, for highlighting this. There’s clearly no shortage of ideas about how to bring people and prosperity back to the Highlands and Islands.
    It’s not exactly a new problem, though, is it? But while people talked about it for over a hundred years, the problems just got worse. How much longer before things really begin to change for the better? If there are lots of good ideas, what’s preventing the action?
    I’ll come back to that, but I’d like to take up one point – Steven says “we need an umbrella approach…” and Alasdair highlights housing but ends up talking about a whole range of things from land reform through transport and broadband to loans for small businesses.
    I can’t help thinking that this ‘umbrella’ idea is the key. The extent of depopulation, the destruction of settlements and cultures, the loss of opportunity, the spoiling of the land – all these are so overwhelming that individual good ideas can only go so far. Only a comprehensive plan, an ‘umbrella’ approach, has any chance of making the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.
    How do we know this ? Because it is already working. We just need to take a look at similar places around us. Norway’s not a bad place to start. Before you start with “oil, loads of money, no clearances…” it’s worth looking at the range of things they do.
    They all basically involve cutting costs. Not offsetting the costs – there are plenty of benefits to be enjoyed from living in the Highlands and Islands. But cutting costs enough to give people a chance to make a decent life.
    What are the spokes and the fabric which make up the Norwegian umbrella ? The most important one is cutting the cost of employment – reduced national insurance contributions. Then there is a housebuilding programme in rural areas. Better broadband connections, backed up by loan and grant support for businesses. Lower electricity costs. Getting skilled young people back through lower taxes and higher allowances. Cutting transport costs. A special programme to support rural shops and garages – together with post offices, these are the features which make the difference between prospering and declining villages. More funds for local authorities to meet the cost of providing good quality health and education. Not to mention agriculture and fishing. And maybe Norway doesn’t need the kind of land reform that would help open up opportunities in Scotland. Nor getting rid of the hidden subsidies for landowners that drive up the cost of land.
    Most of this can be delivered locally, by people who know what’s needed, who know who they are helping, whether they are reliable or not – in Norway, local authorities are certainly more local than what we have in Scotland.
    So why does Norway get an umbrella when we have to make do with a knotted hanky and running under a tree to dodge the rain ? It’s not because they’ve got the ideas and we don’t.
    I would venture that it’s something to do with matching the tools that are available with the people that have the political responsibility. Why? Because it’s not easy to convince voters to stump up the money for nice-looking places where they don’t live. But if you’ve got the political responsibility, and the tools to do the job, then you can start to build wide public support. To put together a comprehensive package. To involve people in designing it and refining it. To let go and hand power to others. That takes courage and willpower. And it takes having the powers in the first place – the ability to do something.
    No it’s not another ‘if only we had independence…’ moan. A Norway solution is possible with additional powers for Scotland even within the UK. But the fact is that the Scottish government doesn’t have the powers to deliver a Norway-type solution. It can only go so far, but not far enough. That’s the real reason why the good ideas for the Highlands haven’t been acted on.
    Because there is and never has been any real commitment in Whitehall or Westminster, and why should there have been ? And if there ever is, it will run up against the ‘we know best’ attitude in Whitehall, the total lack of understanding that there is another point of view, that there can be good ideas even in Norway, let alone Portree. Some of that has infected Edinburgh, where the civil service still depends on Whitehall for their careers and for their frame of reference. It has led to a subservient self-censorship – ‘oh, no we can’t possibly do that…I know it’s sensible, but it’s not allowed’.
    We don’t need to take this any more. The Scottish government could break through the stonewall and put a package on the table right now. Making clear what can already be done, and what additional powers are needed. Not asking, but showing. Showing how the prosperity and well-being of people in the Highlands and Islands is within reach. If we take the powers and put them in the hands of people that know how to use them.

    • Thanks for this Alan – super contribution and couldn’t agree more

    • Norway at government level explicitly seek to spend money to keep their high Arctic areas populated and thriving. If they ran Norway like the UK the south around Oslo would resemble the SE of the UK.

      The fact that Tromsø up above the Arctic circle is there and works, has a university (I once met a Norwegian researcher married to an Aussie who worked there) because the Norwegian government wishes it to be so and realises that will cost more than having that stuff in the greater Oslo area.

      They do this partly because it is good for the country but also because if you don’t occupy your lands someone else might. Remember the Argentine scrap metal merchants in South Georgia.

      NZ maintains permanently but rotationally manned conservation and research stations on places like the otherwise uninhabited Kermadec Islands (halfway to Tonga) and the Sub Antarctic Islands to the South and SE of NZ as featured on the BBC recently because it maintains NZ’s claim to them. It also provides eyes on the ground to spot illegal fishing boats.

      NZ also operates Scott Base in Antarctica in support of the territorial claim for ‘our’ slice of it. The big American base down the road at McMurdo is because they explicitly do not recognise territorial claims there. Also they run Operation Deep Freeze from Christchurch airport and NZ gets to piggy back on it. NZ can, theoretically, fly to and from independently but it is dodgy with ageing Hercules.

  9. I like how you write “They all basically involve cutting costs”, and your next paragraph is a litany of increased government spending.

    I’m in favour of ‘pump priming’ government spending, particularly in a recession, if a holistic approach is taken and the programs chosen are the most appropriate: build that film studio in the Pentlands, create the pumped-water electricity storage scheme at the east end of the Great Glen; build out broadband infrastructure; upgrade rural airports; .put your favourite hobby horse here.

    Positive ideas are good. It seems to me costed ideas are unlikely to reach the First Minister’s eyes – and with limited borrowing powers, Scotland is stuck with the size of its Westminster grant. For each grand idea, how much spending is needed, and which parts of the existing budget would you cut?

  10. Angus The Crofter

    The lack of housing drags our rural economies down. In the crofting counties one of the major problems is crofting itself. Many (not all) crofters are totally opposed to reform which would impinge upon the current system of “ownership” and grant support. I say “ownership” because the majority of crofters act in some ways like the landowners crofting legislation was designed to curb. Despite being tenants of public land they see themselves as landowners and are unwilling to even consider anything that would take away what they see as being theirs exclusively. Many make access difficult and are against paths and cycleways. They refuse to look at alternatives to sheep. Above all, they see themselves as a body that the rest of the population must support.

    Many crofters have tenancies of several crofts. On Skye I know of one who has 5 adjacent crofts and sold off 3 decrofted plots (not to locals) for over £70,000 over a 6 year period. Another offered to sell me a plot as long as it was kept quiet until it qualified for decrofting as he had already decrofted on that land. This is all public land!

    Any criticism of crofters and the crofting system is usually met with verbal (not physical, so far) aggression, certainly where I live. And before it is said that my comments are those of “an incomer”, my family background is in crofting, in the days when it was essential to the economy of the Highlands and Islands. It no longer is, and should be abolished to free up land and resources. Crofters do not want this and do not want to own their crofts, because they believe that they would lose their subsidies. (That is not necessarily the case.)

    For obvious reasons I cannot put my actual name to this comment, not it that I expect many of our crofters to read your blog, Derek!

  11. The Isle of Arran has been suffering the same issues but has recently led the way in “whitespace” technology, using the bandwidth left over from the analogue TV signals. You can get more information about it at and also on the ConnectArran facebook page. The project as well as getting folk vastly improved broadband speeds(from 0.5mbps increased to 25 mbps) is also employing local folk to install the systems so it’s a win-win.

    I don’t live in the initial coverage area and have a reasonable speed for now via BT, but it has made a huge difference to businesses operating in the area preserving much needed jobs on the west of the island.

  12. aye well from 2 miles from Kinross and broadband speed of 0.4MB – yes not 40, not even 4 but 0.4 ! The thought of universal broadband from where I am seems like a pipedream.
    Apparently our community exchange has suffered so much from past underinvestment that it cant take superfast broadband and BT essentially would have to flatten it and start again costing £250,000 – hence we are on superslow with no prospect of improvement.
    Now the Cleish community is so hacked off that it is going to put in a community broadband using wifi stations up the valley. It will give us 20mb.
    BUT – we will have to stump up £300 – £400 each for hardware and locked inti a contract with the system provider – which is fine but what does irk me is that if the technology is out there – WHY IS BT NOT FORCED TO SUPPLY IT !!
    We are essentially doing BT job for it and saving them a shedload of money and hassle upgrading their exchange – that is all wrong – The community is footing the bill just because we are a difficult area .
    BT should be forced to pay for the provision even if we the community organise and supply it.
    Universal provision is just that and they should be held to account.
    For future rollouts of new technology they should as part of their contract be forced to do rural areas first before they are allowed to provide in the cities and urban areas where the money is – that would get their fingers out their arses.

    Now Derek has had 2 guest blogs – one on housing and one on IT structure in rural areas — it wouldn’t be the daftest idea in world for Scotgov to pilot these ideas on a limited basis say on the western isles to start with and see how it goes whether to roll it out further – I suspect it would be very successful.

    • Dead right. alongside this BT was allowed over GBP2Bn in profit last year.

      It says here that telecoms remains a matter reserved to Westminster. (If you look at a world map of submarine internet cabling, you can also see about 10 lines landing in England, and none in Scotland. There are two going past Scotland to land in Denmark, mind you).

      That’s confirmed here (page 6):

      Or you could believe the BBC, which tells you that even as of 2013, Holyrood has responsibility for rural development:

      Derek, is there anyone in your neighbourhood who could write for us about road signs? That’s what we Scots are allowed to get excited about. That, and Governor-General Mundell’s mandate on abortion law. I read he’s also laying the ground for England to keep The Borders on separation.

    • Dead right. alongside this BT was allowed over GBP2Bn in profit last year.

      It says here that telecoms remains a matter reserved to Westminster. (If you look at a world map of submarine internet cabling, you can also see about 10 lines landing in England, and none in Scotland. There are two going past Scotland to land in Denmark, mind you).

      https ://

      That’s confirmed here (page 6):

      http ://

      Or you could believe the BBC, which tells you that even as of 2013, Holyrood has responsibility for rural development:

      http ://

      Derek, is there anyone in your neighbourhood who could write for us about road signs? That’s what we Scots are allowed to get excited about. That, and Governor-General Mundell’s mandate on abortion law. I read he’s also laying the ground for England to keep The Borders on separation.

  13. Been dealing with Digital Scotland, their maps showing areas where you can get broadband are false, ask them questions and they will not answer them. Using satellite internet, expensive but works, should that be part of Openreach network, problem solved.

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