Broadband access and performance are amongst the most critical of the factors associated with both delivering an effective digital public sector and also supporting the nation's broader economic and social goals.
There is evidence to support the view that economic activity and social wellbeing are both enhanced when businesses and individuals are able to conduct business, access commercial and public services and generally improve quality of life through the internet. And of course that is only likely to happen when broadband access and performance levels are at or beyond an acceptable level.
Indeed, it is asserted that there is a direct correlation between improving economic activity on one hand and wider access and better broadband performance on the other. It is certainly the case that lack of access and poor performance are inhibitors to economic growth.
There is no doubt that for this next decade and beyond broadband infrastructure will be as relevant to economic progress as roads and transportation including effective rail and air links.
There is also no doubt that it would be highly unlikely that the vision described earlier in this report for a "digital public sector" could be realised without progression to effective and efficient next-generation broadband.
Also, there is a growing concern that rural and remote locations often have poor broadband service (broadband speeds in rural areas being less than half of that in urban areas). Also a concern is the fact that even in urban areas there are groups of people within the population who for social and other reasons do not have access to the internet and electronic-based services.
It also appears that despite Scotland having many companies including small and medium enterprises ( SMEs) playing key roles in developing a national "digital economy" a significant number of small businesses are lagging behind in their commercial use of the internet.
In summary, whether for social reasons, economic growth and regeneration or ambitious inward investment projects (which include plans to attract large data service complexes to Scotland) the likelihood of successful progress is highly dependent upon the availability of high-speed broadband links to the rest of the UK and beyond.
The Digital Scotland Report 4 issued by the Royal Society of Edinburgh emphasised the need for a digital strategy for Scotland. It asserts that the UK as a whole is lagging behind the capability of technology and the speeds projected by Neilsen's Law of Internet Bandwidth and associated data. It also pointed out that unless action is taken the current gap would widen significantly in the future. The report suggested a broadband speed target of 16Mbps being available to all in Scotland by 2015 and proposes this should rise to 128Mbps by 2020.
It also estimated that 2500km of additional fibre was required in rural areas in Scotland to make high speed connections available to every community and reiterated the findings of the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Broadband Group that laying broadband in rural areas could cost between £15 and £40 per metre.
The report also recommended a funding scheme that would include a combination of commercially led investment and borrowing through non-profit distribution models.
The "reform scotland" think tank organisation in its digital power publication presented a comprehensive review of broadband status and plans. In emphasising the importance to our economy it highlighted the fact that the nation's strong presence in software, digital media and creative industries made access to high speed broadband even more of an imperative. The recommendations included the appointment of a Minister for Digital Scotland.
As with the Digital Scotland document this report also focused on the current rating system for fibre which is seen to discourage investment in fibre deployment.
The Scottish Government's A Digital Ambition for Scotland document 5 also set out the government's thinking in this area. The follow up to this, Scotland's Digital Future document 6 , is referenced below.
Broadband service and its capability is very much about the existence of physical infrastructure and the operation of the networks that it supports. That infrastructure is owned, operated and delivered by a small number of commercial telecommunications providers. Their services and business models within the UK are regulated by Ofcom.
Providing broadband telecommunications infrastructure is a capital expenditure intensive operation. As mentioned above depending upon the technology type being used investment of between £15 and £40 per metre would be typical of the investment needed to expand or improve upon the existing status of capability in Scotland.
This requirement for high levels of capital investment creates a commercial environment in which population size and economic activity and their direct link to levels of usage and anticipated broadband service revenues are seen by private sector providers as being prerequisites for justifying significant investments in infrastructure. At the same time it is obvious that it is possible to trade-off investment levels and performance and in particular to use different approaches and technologies as part of this balancing act. For example fibre broadband to the roadside cabinet is less expensive than fibre to the premises. The ability to utilise existing unused fibre (dark fibre) could have significant financial advantages as could using a mix of alternative technologies in particular situations such as wireless, mobile and satellite broadband.
Over recent years there have been a number of initiatives that have sought to address the area of broadband access and performance and in particular the issue of service to remote and rural locations.
One of these is the Scottish Government-sponsored Pathfinder Project. This project was first considered and scoped in 2001/2 and following further definition, development and procurement was initiated in 2006. It involved two separate schemes, one for the North and the other for the South of Scotland. These will run until 2014.
£90m of public expenditure was committed in this intervention (£63m for the North and £27m for the South). It supports the provision of high speed broadband to rural and more remote parts of the country.
The lead roles were taken by two consortia of local authorities engaging after a Scottish Government-led procurement exercise with one single service provider.
1169 local authority and school sites are connected with broadband connectivity ranging from 2Mbps to 1Gbps 7 .
The intervention has resulted after subsidy in a cost-effective broadband network compared to that experienced by the local authorities prior to the Pathfinder Project. This is a consequence of both the government contribution and the aggregation of broadband spend by seven local authorities. A Scottish Government sponsored report 8 highlighted that the cost of the bandwidth within the North reduced from £3323 per Mbps per annum to £600 per Mbps per annum within the project.
This same report described the other benefits from the project and in particular the high level of "customer satisfaction" within the participating local authorities and their staff. In general there is a view amongst users that without the Pathfinder project then many progressive and beneficial public services and processes would not have been delivered or supported.
Although it is clear that many benefits have been delivered to those participating, the very early original scope of the project was not pursued.
The scope was reduced from creating a telecommunications infrastructure that would have served not only local authorities but also the health service and further and higher education to one that is primarily local authority centric and within local authorities used for specialised although important services. Also within the original scope was a desire to allow access to the Pathfinder network to private and community networks.
One intangible but important attribute associated with this project, given remarks elsewhere in this report on the sharing of ICT investments, is that the Pathfinder Projects involved collaboration across seven local authorities having similar needs and facing equivalent challenges. This demonstrates that "common needs" driven sharing can be a reality.
One of the consequences of the deployment being more limited than planned is that the level of utilisation of the capability has been well below the full potential of the network and therefore although value has been obtained by those who participated, had a wider group of user organisations taken advantage of the service then the value delivered would have been greater.
As a result of the commercial arrangements, and despite the significant government investment, the provider owns the network infrastructure and all its associated and connected equipment.
The provider can use the infrastructure to service other public and private sector customers provided the capacity is not being utilised by Pathfinder partners.
Within the Scottish Government's administration the ISIS Division has a central network infrastructure contract with one of the providers and this supports the core Scottish Government's organisations and also other bodies in the context of data links, services and support.
The Scottish Government's "Interconnect" network was set up by Learning and Teaching Scotland to support the delivery of content to local authority data centre boundaries and as mentioned earlier the Glow content has been perceived as highly beneficial.
Also in Scotland the National Health Service committed itself to using the central N3 network for the complete sector and the Police Services take advantage of a central PNN3 contract.
Janet is a UK-wide network used extensively by Scotland's universities and colleges. This network addresses the needs of research and education institutions. Its origins go back to the 1970s and since then, through various developments, it has evolved into a highly capable and widely-used service. Its financial supporters include all of the UK's funding bodies including the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council.
However, these co-ordinated or aggregated contracts are only part of the broadband structure within Scotland and is estimated that in addition to these there are at least another 140 separate wide area network ( WAN) arrangements 9 between individual public sector bodies and the small number of telecoms providers. It is estimated that the annual cost of this is around £200m.
Outside of Scotland a number of local authorities have come together in different places to create regional public sector networks. The Kent PSN and the Hampshire PSN are two leading examples of this. In addition there is a London PSN which provides a centralised network service to 33 London boroughs.
One of the most ambitious projects is the Welsh Assembly Government's PSBA Network. This is a project which aggregates the public sector demand for network provision. It is a single integrated next generation communications infrastructure for the Welsh public sector with managed gateways into other UK networks such as N3, Janet and GCSX.
This Welsh project also incorporates an approach of "local loop unbundling" a complementary technological solution which is touched upon later in this report at section 8: New Technologies and Techniques .
The UK Government has a Broadband Delivery UK scheme which has been allocated £530m to facilitate the delivery of broadband. This is being distributed to rural areas on a project by project basis. Through a competitive bid a Highlands and Islands Enterprise-led initiative has been successful in being awarded up to £10m to undertake a next generation broadband pilot to improve connectivity in the region 10 . There may be opportunities to win additional funding from the UK Government for this and other projects.
The very recently published Scotland's Digital Future document sets out a plan to ensure that by 2020 next generation broadband will be available to all in Scotland with significant progress towards that goal being made by 2015. It also includes an aim of being aligned with the EU's Digital Agenda which has a target of 30Mbps for all in the 2020 timeframe.
The report points out that currently 99% of our population can access basic broadband with a speed of 512kbps compared to only 45% having that level of service in 2001. However, it acknowledges the findings of a recent Ofcom report that showed that third generation broadband (3G) coverage in Scotland at 41% in terms of geography and 66% of population is well below the UK average of 76% and 87% respectively although it highlights that broadband infrastructure is not the key reason for this gap. In this context the document focuses on the need to increase participation in the "digital world" including the internet. The document also lays out a comprehensive plan to pursue the other most important elements for Scotland including a broadband implementation plan, a digital economy thrust and a public services delivery project.
Within the UK Government's ICT Strategy 11 there is a specific Public Sector Network Strategy. This was proposed as a single holistic telecommunications infrastructure serving the whole of the public sector in the UK. It is described as a network of networks.
The programme was established to deliver:
- Converged voice and data communications.
- A coherent design and facilitation of market delivery of interoperable services.
- A stimulation of the private sector to deliver PSN services and the creation of a "Government Conveyance Network".
- A set of common standards and processes and governance.
- A central transition plan to transition to this new approach.
In support of these goals the network would be "secure by design", utilise open standards, be interoperable with legacy systems, energy efficient and highly competitive in terms of cost.
In the context of the Scottish Government's digital strategy and in particular the need to act now to secure future goals the PSN concept offers many advantages. One very practical one is the fact that work is already completed in creating common standards, seamless connectivity, information assurance protocols and " PSN assured" supplier services. This is of great benefit and avoids both the need for investment and the delay involved in developing other alternatives in these fundamental areas of technical design.