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Service Provider Innovation: Bridging the Digital Divide and Bringing Broadband to the Back of Beyond

- December 20, 2016 - 0 Comments

In Cisco Services, we are passionate about connecting the unconnected – so I’m always impressed when I see innovation aligned to this goal. And with service providers globally continually striving to differentiate their business, it’s also good to see how one person’s challenge becomes another person’s opportunity.

This year, I have developed a real interest in the challenges of rural broadband – generally the lack of – and how this impacts local economies in my own country. Closing the so-called “Digital Divide” is a focus for many governments around the globe, including the Scottish Government.  In this blog, I’ll discuss how local start-up service providers are innovating to help address these challenges in areas of poor internet provision.  One such company is Back of Beyond (BoB) Broadband – I love that name! – a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) based in Oban, a small tourist town on the west coast of Scotland.  BoB Broadband are doing their bit to counter the challenges and impacts of country digitization that Cisco chairman John Chambers discusses in the video here:

When Coffee Shops Are Impacted by Digital Transformation ….

In Scotland, let’s be honest, we don’t have the best weather.  It rains. It rains a lot.  While this gives us some of the most beautiful eye-popping green scenery on the planet, it does leave you with a challenge when on holiday in Scotland: what to do when it rains!  Years ago I remember over-hearing an American tourist exclaiming “Gee, it’s raining again, time for more coffee and cake!”  Consequently, coffee and cake cafes could be classed, in my opinion, as the bedrock of the tourist economy in Scotland :-).  As I blogged earlier this year, in internet-poor areas, coffee shops in the West Highlands of Scotland are suffering because they are not able to offer good Wi-Fi experiences to their customers.  And when coffee and cake shops are impacted by poor internet provision, I’m suddenly interested in digital transformation, especially as I see Cisco chairman John Chambers’ predictions ring true in my own back yard.

Rural Broadband: It’s a Global Challenge

Rural broadband is a challenge for many countries: from the USA to Australia, it’s a contentious topic and major service providers and governments focus on investments in areas of high population.  What they are missing, however, is the opportunity to invest in areas where people go to – tourist areas – which may in fact be areas of low population.

Innovation in the Back of Beyond

Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) has arrived in a few areas of the West Highlands of the past year or two.  However availability and capacity are limited.  And many small businesses won’t be served any time soon, and when they are, speeds may be limited, especially when they are far from the cabinets: speeds will ultimately be throttled by the capability of the existing copper telephone lines running VDSL from the cabinet to customer premises.
BoB logo

Back of Beyond Broadband in Oban have spotted a market opportunity. They are deploying innovative low cost wireless technologies to deliver high speed broadband to customers in hard-to-reach areas.  These speeds can and will be faster than some of those offered elsewhere in the UK by the more traditional broadband providers, as the following diagram shows.

The Need for Speed!

BoB WiFi speeds now available in Oban

BoB Broadband speeds now available in Oban

The results are impressive, as shown in the figure on the right. Wow! Over 45 Mbps!  I wish I could get that from my FTTC internet – I’m in a town in (relatively) heavily populated central Scotland where I typically achieve only 26 Mbps download, but I see nowhere near the 49 Mbps upload in BoB’s first connection above.  And this is just the start: BoB are able to offer speeds of up to 300 Mbps to those local business with high capacity demands and a real need for speed!

Making It Happen

In life, we often see people and businesses who make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those that wonder what happened! BoB Broadband are in the “make it happen” category in my opinion.  They have identified new low cost wireless broadband equipment from Santa Clara, California-based Mimosa Wireless.  In hilly, mountainous and rural areas including the Scottish Highlands, many are recognizing that fixed wireline approaches to broadband provision are uneconomic, too slow to deliver, and that low cost wireless solutions offer the quickest route to high-speed broadband and community digital transformation.  BoB Broadband have invested in leased line capacity of 100Mbps (over a 1G bearer, with plans to rise to 500Mbps) of leased line capacity in their Oban HQ to get them started, and are setting up point-to-point connections to from subscribers to their HQ using the Mimosa near-line-of-sight technology.  BoB Broadband are now offering their service to consumers and business who aren’t being served by the more traditional broadband providers.

Business Need a Level Playing Field

WiFi with robust decent internet speed is a standard guest expectation in hotels and bars today. Business such as Scottish Pub of the Year 2014 and 5015 Barn Bar and the Cologin Chalets, both Cisco Meraki customers, are keenly awaiting the BoB rollout in their glen.  Their DSL connection struggles to achieve even 2 Mbps “…. which will never deliver the speed or bandwidth that we need for 22 properties and a busy pub and office. BoB WISP will get round the problems of our distance from the exchange and the lack of commercial fibre available in our Glen and will put us back into the frame to compete on a level playing field with the businesses in town.” said owner Linda Battison.

On the residential side, BoB customers have already experienced up to 20x speed increase over their DSL services.

Wrapping Up

Rural broadband is a challenge in many countries across the world.  It’s not just a problem – as Telecoms.com facetiously mentioned the other week – of tourists being able to upload their latest Facebook photos – poor internet provision causes queues are our ski centres, it impacts local hotels billing their customers, and it may soon start killing coffee shops in the West Highlands of Scotland.  I’m therefore delighted to see innovative new generation local service providers such as BoB Broadband take advantage of market opportunities.  They are deploying new technology and doing their bit to help their local communities avoid the impacts of country digitization, illustrating clearly that wireless internet service provider innovation is alive and well in (of all places!) the Scottish West Highlands!

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