Glacial Progress…

Continuing from last month’s update on attempts to bring the communications available to the three villages area into roughly the same century as the outside world, there’s a little good news and a whole lot of no news: Firstly, with BT awarded government funding under the Step Change 2015 programme to bring a minimum of 2Mb/s to 80% of the rural population, they have announced that they can deliver that level to 93.5% of us. That, whilst it would help a number of the “no-band” areas in the Trossachs, is unlikely make much difference in our area. The way in which BT will deliver this is also unlikely to be future proof in the local area and will deliver a maximum performance that falls far short of current ‘normal’ broadband, let alone the capacity that  that online services are starting to assume as normal and for which they are designing their next generation of services. In effect, if you’re not a urban dweller with fibre cables in your street, you effectively become classed as the ‘rural poor’ and, by definition, don’t matter. 

So we’re carrying on with the long, slow process of finding out just how much it would cost to bring fast and futureproof fibre optic broadband into the area. We do now have provisional costings for bringing a 300Mb/s-1Gb/s (one Gigabit = 1,000 Megabits – yes, really) service into Balquhidder Glen and thence to the surrounding area, including Strathyre and Lochearnhead. Preliminary figures are encouraging and they’re currently refined being and validated. After that we’re into the long, slow and continuing process of using this information to help inform the two public sector procurements: Step Change 2015 and Community Broadband Scotland.

So, as the fibre glaciers grind their slow way along the valley of least official resistance, piling up behind  the granite outcrops of indecision and committeedom on the way, what can we do to help ourselves in the meantime? 

Well, there is a new player in town: a new generation satellite service called Tooway. But before you start looking out the age-hardened neeps to hurl, consider that just because previous satellite initiatives have proven expensive, slow and poorly supported, we now have a new generation of satellites and, we hope, providers who actually understand customer service. 

In August, Cllr Alycia Hayes organised for one of the resellers of the new Eutelsat Tooway service, Avonline, to come along with their test van to see what connections are possible from hereabouts to this satellite. And, having tested it from Balquhidder Village Hall, Tulloch, Monachyle Mhor, Inverlochlarig, Stronvar, Gart, Ballimore, Immeroin and Stronslaney, we’re pleased to say that we managed good connections from all of these, with download speeds in the 14-18Mbps range and upload speeds of around 3.5-5Mbps. For comparison, performance on the ex-Avanti satellite system at Inverlochlarig was 2.3Mb/s download and 0.053Mb/s upload – pathetic and perennially expensive.

Outwith Balquhidder Glen, tests were carried out at Loch Achray hotel, near Tigh Mor; in Brig o Turk: the Community Centre, Post Office and row of bungalows, with good coverage reported at each. The only place where we couldn’t obviously get a sight line to the satellite (at 9°E and about 23° above level horizon for anyone who’s interested) was in the lee of Creag Mhor near Monachyle Tuarach – sorry folks.

With satellite broadband systems, the deil is very much in the detail, with weather, terrain and vegetation all playing a part alongside the laws of physics (ie a 72,000km round trip for the signal) and the realities of lots of people sharing a satellite beam (although now three beams cover only Scotland as opposed to one beam covering all of Europe, which seems like a step forward). Commercially, although it appears to be a lot cheaper and more sensible than the old systems, it’s hard to make a definitive recommendation without trying it out. Which is just what we’re doing – Avonline is providing a test installation and we’ll be monitoring that closely over the next couple of months to see just what does and doesn’t work. We’ll publish results but if you’d like to know more in the meantime about local realities, then email Richard Harris –  Details of the Tooway service and its resellers are here and, Avonline is the Tooway reseller who will be helping out with our survey.

[Update: nearly three years later. Avonline/Tooway are just as bad as the earlier generations, overselling their product to the point where the service just fails].

In the longer term, experience and a little head-scratching suggests that, funding permitting, we’re initially most likely to end up with fibre provision to a single local point, with wireless links to individual properties and satellite providing a little infill for properties too remote or problematically located for the other services. Longer term, replacement of much of the wireless with fibre laid up the glens would definitely be desireable but the biggest cost item and first step, bringing fibre into the area, is essentially futureproof, whilst a wireless local connection is cheap and can be replaced whenever something better comes along.

2 thoughts on “Glacial Progress…”

  1. This was originally published as an article in The Villagers, the community newspaper serving the four villages of Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, Strathyre & St Fillan’s. It must have struck a chord because, at the 2014 Community Newspaper Awards, this won “Best Article”.

  2. We are a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community.

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