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Delivering fibre broadband in rural Scotland. Chief Engineer, Andy Whale

14 Nov 2017
MAIN Andy Wale blog

Photo caption: Pieter Bakker is pictured at work on the Altnaharra Estate, and with his son Scott.

How do you solve a problem like connecting the most remote communities in the British Isles to high speed broadband? At Openreach, we know that innovation has to be part of the answer.

Altnaharra is a small hamlet in the Highland region of northern Scotland. They have a Met Office weather station there because every winter it’s home to some of the most extreme weather in the UK. In fact back in December 1995, the lowest UK temperature ever was recorded in Altnaharra at −27.2 °C. This is not a place that many broadband providers even venture to.

Finding a high-speed broadband solution for Altnaharra initially seemed as remote as the nearest phone box, but when faced with a challenge our engineers always look for a way – not a way out. 

They decided to deploy Fibre-to-the-Premises technology, but with a twist - by building a connection from new nodes which branch off an existing fibre ‘artery’ direct to local properties.

During the installation, our engineers tested new equipment designed to bring down the costs of delivering FTTP. For example the Ditch Witch – a gruesome looking digger which provides a fast and efficient way to bury armoured fibre cable into soft roadside verges.

Building on their success, our team were able to replicate these techniques to connect up Altnaharra’s equally remote neighbour – the northern coastal hamlet of Skerray.

As a result, both communities have seen their internet connections rocket from some of the slowest speeds in Scotland to some of the fastest. The cables are now live and ready to take orders, with some residents and businesses already making use of them. 
All of these techniques are now being used to roll out fibre in other parts of the country, helping to connect up communities who would otherwise be beyond reach. But it doesn’t stop there.  

The lessons from Altnaharra are now informing our wider strategy. Openreach has set out its ambition to build a large-scale ‘full fibre’ broadband network across the country, which we believe is needed to future-proof Britain’s digital infrastructure and safeguard our position as a leading digital economy.

We’ve been encouraged by the broad support for this ambition from our wholesale customers, but there are still significant challenges to overcome if the industry is going to build a viable business case. 

One of those challenges is proving that we can built FTTP connections at scale for a world class competitive cost. We’ve already managed to halve our costs for FTTP deployment over the last year and the work we’ve been doing in places like Altnaharra will ultimately help us to achieve that goal.