Connected Britain panellists clash over best technologies for rural network deployment.
Local authorities look for more than just the most suitable technology at the lowest price when selecting suppliers for publicly-funded rural broadband deployments.
That is according to Zoe Laird, director of Community Broadband Scotland (CBS), a Scottish government initiative that aims to get coverage to locations left behind by Digital Scotland’s superfast broadband programme, which will cover 95% of the country by the end of March 2018.
One of the challenges CBS faces, Laird explained during a panel session at Total Telecom’s Connected Britain event in London last week, is gauging the prospects of the supplier market.
"Being a public sector funder, we’re always keen to see things like strong financial ratios; track records; companies in profit," and so-on, she said. "Unfortunately, as a lot of companies go through some very big changes, sometimes these things are not always as strong as we’d like to see, from an investor’s point of view."
Keeping that in mind, Laird indicated that initiatives like CBS might prefer to see suppliers collaborating on broadband deployments to get the solution best-suited to a community’s needs, and to give more confidence about the long-term viability of such projects.
"We’re all business people, wanting to dominate, and consider ourselves as the only solution, as opposed to actually fixing the problem between us, which requires a degree of collaboration," agreed Andrew Glover, director of fixed wireless provider Air Broadband.
Being open-minded about partners and technology also limits some of the risk on the supplier side too, risks that Ranulf Scarbrough, director of BT’s Superfast Cornwall programme, drew attention to.
So far, Superfast Corwall has passed around 280,000 premises, and there are between 15,000 and 30,000 still to reach.
"As you get towards 100% it does get very interesting, because 100% of anywhere is very challenging and the last few premises can be tremendously expensive," Scarbrough said.
"You can spend a lot of money getting to a premises and find that no one wants it, or no one even lives there," he said.
For one supplier in the room though, the objective is very simple: get fibre-to-the-premises to as close to 100% of the country as possible.
"The whole of the country should have fibre by 2030," said Matthew Hare, CEO of Gigaclear, which, unsurprisingly, specialises in building and operating rural FTTP networks.
By 2030, he said every premises should have at least one fibre connection, with those in urban areas even having two or three.
For that to happen, society at large will have to accept 15 years of disruption, "while we go from where we are today to where we want to get to," Hare said.
However, Laird believes that FTTP is "very unlikely in every location in Scotland," and said that hybrid solutions might be needed, such as a local fibre access network that is backhauled over low-orbit satellites.
That isn’t good enough for Hare though, who drew parallels between rolling out fibre and the expansion of the U.K.’s national electricity grid to more remote parts of the country.
"Almost everybody is actually on the electricity network," he said. "To balk at the challenge that they got to in the 70s and fixed back then, because we think it’s going to be a bit difficult to get fibre everywhere, I think is pitiful."