Fibre-free diet: Tiree starved of superfast broadband in super-slow R100 rollout

Tiree's local historical society building, An Iodhlann, which hosts the local broadband network, and the BT exchange less than 20 metres away.

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As the Scottish Government’s pledge to deliver superfast fibre broadband to all homes by 2021 rolls out super slowly in the Highlands and Islands, where it now won’t be completed until 2026/27, Tiree’s community broadband provider says islanders cannot get the minimum speeds promised by a compensatory voucher scheme, because BT/Openreach ‘refuses’ to lay a few metres of fibre.

The saga so far: back in 2017, Holyrood’s £600m Reaching 100% (R100) programme vowed to give every home and business access to ‘superfast’ fibre broadband by 2021, and ‘place rural Scotland among the best connected places anywhere in Europe.

‘All premises will have access to “superfast” speeds of 30 megabits per second (Mbps), with some in South and Central Scotland having access to 1,000 Mbps.’

The R100 rollout quickly met delays in Scotland’s ‘North lot’, which includes the Highlands and Islands, after the Government’s decision to award the contract to BT/Openreach was challenged in a legal dispute.

As the 2021 deadline whizzed by, Holyrood introduced a voucher scheme where those with internet speeds below 30Mbps could apply – up to March 31, 2022 – for a £400 voucher to set up a temporary connection with a provider, while R100 rolls out.

This may be some time. The Scottish Government told an FOI request: ‘We expect build in the R100 Lot 1 (North) contract to be completed during the financial year 2026/27’ – six years behind schedule.

Quick lesson: an internet service provider can get your premises online via a (fast) copper telephone wire, or a (faster) coaxial cable, or a (fastest) fibre-optic line, all linked to a local exchange. It’s these last few yards that make all the difference.

Enter Tiree Community Broadband (TCB): an island-based, not-for-profit company set up in 2005 to ensure no household on Tiree was left without decent internet access.

‘It became clear very late in the day’ R100 left ‘large gaps’ on the island, TCB said. ‘As the R100 is not due to arrive in Tiree until 2024, residents are eligible for a voucher to help them access 30Mbps speeds. The only possible provider would be the community broadband company.’

After a review of its network, which runs at 10Mbps and is already at capacity, TCB said ‘offering 30Mbps speeds is not possible based on the current infrastructure.

‘The key issue is Openreach refuses to provide Tiree Broadband with direct access to a fibre connection (Fibre To The Premises, or FTTP).

‘Because of this, the company is forced to juggle multiple domestic copper lines to provide a service to their customers.’ TCB’s chairperson, Rhoda Meek, said: ‘We are once again forced to try and upgrade our network to cover the lack of basic provision.

‘Unfortunately, we have reached the end of the road with sticky tape and string solutions. To support additional speeds, we need FTTP. Despite multiple pleas, Openreach is unwilling to provide that.

‘We are currently forced to serve the island using multiple domestic copper lines. To give you an idea of our challenges, our last three line installations took three months. We serve 280 households on the equivalent of 12 domestic lines.

‘The island exchange is about 20 metres away from our network access point, complete with a connecting duct, and yet we are unable to access a full fibre service. It is frustrating to say the least.’

Ms Meek concluded: ‘The fact the final R100 rollout will not cover all properties in Tiree with fibre is bad enough, but to refuse us access to a commercial fibre connection – when we are the group covering the gaps in provision – is outrageous.

‘We are calling on politicians of all parties to support us.’

Openreach’s partnership director Robert Thorburn said: ‘We understand the frustrations here. We continue to look for a viable answer.

‘Where FTTP technology is available, we don’t ‘refuse’ access to it. We operate an open network, and we’re regulated on how providers access and use it.

‘There is core fibre network on Tiree which is used to power superfast broadband cabinets and circuits for mobile connectivity.

‘But we don’t yet have the associated infrastructure on the island which would be needed to offer FTTP.

‘That’s why we can’t currently provide TCB with access, though this upgrade will happen longer term through the R100 build.

‘We’ve looked into indicative costs of an earlier deployment, but these are well beyond the scope of either a commercial deployment or voucher funding.

‘Where FTTP isn’t available, customers can potentially order bigger bandwidth products like Ethernet. Sometimes this may involve significant costs.

‘In a nutshell, there isn’t an easy answer, and we’re continuing to explore options.’