Last week, in Part 1, I blogged about the bizarre association of queues at my local ski centre and unreliable access to cloud payment services. Being located in an area of poor internet provision, the resulting unreliable and slow access to cloud services means that credit card payments process slowly. Very slowly. Consequently, on busy days, there can be queues of 30+ minutes just to get a ticket to the ski slopes.

The real life examples I quote in Part 1 lead me to believe that what we are seeing in the Highlands of Scotland are the first negative regional impacts of digitization. The “bigger picture” to this is what we in Cisco call “country digitization”, which is discussed by Cisco Chairman John Chambers in the video below.  John predicts that successful adoption of country digitization … “… will determine which countries really grow and prosper in the future, and …” [ominously] “… which ones fall behind”.

In this Part 2, I’ll discuss some ideas on how the Internet of Things (IoT) and new business model opportunities could help service providers justify investment in rural broadband. Such investment is necessary to build the platform for digital business in rural areas, and ensure that such areas do not “fall behind”.

Broadband and Mobile Internet Provision in the Scottish Highlands

High speed broadband rollout has been a challenge in parts of the UK, and the Scottish Highlands are no exception. Challenging terrain and weather, especially in winter, coupled with low population density, don’t help the business case for UK’s high speed broadband rollout. Even today in 2016, many communities and businesses do not yet have access to high speed/fibre broadband. Priority has been given – in many ways understandably – to locations that are easier to access and host larger centres of population. Consequently, villages with populations of 100s or 1000-2000 people have been prioritized for broadband upgrade above tourist locations that attract 100,000s of people each year. Priority has been given to where people live while locations where people go to have – either knowingly or unknowingly – been de-prioritized. There has been focus on availability of service rather than any service-level agreement that would, for example, support business fundamentals such as reliable credit card payment transactions.

In Scotland and the UK more generally, government funding and community-funded broadband initiatives are used in places to address some of the gaps. I am not here to complain or cast doubt on these approaches. With creative thinking, I am pretty sure that there is potential for innovative business models to help service providers monetize and return ROI on rural broadband upgrade. Let’s now turn to that opportunity, and I’ll use Canadian provider Telus as a leading example of best practice, who – at no cost to the government – have invested in mobile services for mountain regions.

The Service Provider Opportunity

Snow sports sphere of influence: Where do Scottish snow sports participants come from? (Source: Snowsport Scotland)
Snow sports sphere of influence: Where do Scottish snow sports participants come from? (Source: Snowsport Scotland)

I can imagine the challenging ROI discussions in service providers, simply to provide Internet access which will often be used to the advantage of over-the-top social media organizations. However that, I will argue, is missing the bigger picture.

First, the business case. Visitors to highland tourist areas come from all over the UK, indeed from all over the world. Service providers could think of the business case, not in terms of who lives there, but who visits there too. As I highlighted in part 1 of this blog, Glencoe Mountain, for example, has over 70,000 skier visits in winter, 150,000 visitors annually, and and over 1 million vehicles per year pass their front door. Tens of thousands of walkers annually use challenge themselves to walk the West Highland Way that runs through the ski centre. As the chart on the right illustrates, visitors to the Scottish ski centres come from all over the UK.  The service provider who invests in tourist areas will gain ‘first mover advantage’ and should, with smart marketing, gain a differentiating advantage with this UK and worldwide visitor group.

Thinking Bigger: Data Pipe Provider Or “Connected Experience Provider”?

It’s interesting to see how innovative organizations redefine their opportunity via smart marketing. Take a look at the Fern Villa Guest House Facebook page, for example. Fern Villa is a small hotel in Ballachulish, near Glencoe and Fort William in the West Highlands of Scotland, tiny by global hotel standards. Their marketing vision, however, is not tiny. Their Facebook page suggests to me that Fern Villa is not simply selling “bed and breakfast”. They are providing fascinating travel experiences.

On the service provider front, some have already made the move to “experience provider” marketing. UK service provider O2 has already earned substantial business value, and indeed plaudits in Ardi Kolah’s leading sponsorship marketing text book “Improving the Performance of Sponsorship”, for their “entertainment experience” provider focus.

Over in North America, innovative Canadian provider Telus has devised a long running strategy to help justify provision of advanced cell phone and WiFi services to mountain areas, leveraging sports sponsorship marketing to ensure high profile exposure for the Telus brand in return for that investment.

Telus Mountain WiFi at Whistler Blackcomb - Source: http://www.whistlerblackcomb.com/mountain-info/at-your-fingertips
Telus Mountain WiFi at Whistler BlackcombSource: Source: http://www.whistlerblackcomb.com/mountain-info/at-your-fingertips

Telus have teamed up with multiple major ski resorts to deliver “connected mountain experiences”. In the case of Whistler Blackcomb, Telus are the resort’s exclusive telecommunications provider, offering not only cell phone coverage but also top to bottom WiFi connectivity, as the picture below shows. And at Big White Ski Resort, Telus sponsorship has funded development of the extensive snow park, Telus Park – again in exchange for exclusive promotion rights. It’s notable that Telus have made significant investments in sponsorship of amateur sports, in a manner very consistent with their leading reputation in community and corporate responsibility.

Winter Road Sensors - Featuring Black Ice and Aqua Plane Risk Detection (Source: http://www.vaisala.com)
Winter Road Sensors – Featuring Black Ice and Aqua Plane Risk Detection (Source: http://www.vaisala.com)

Then there is the IoT opportunity, which could be transformational for service providers. I referred to the “Connected Transportation” opportunity in part 1 of this blog. Sensors are already available for road monitoring, including for example black ice and aqua plan risk detection, which could transform road safety particularly in harsh weather areas such as the remote Scottish highlands.

Additionally, the Smart Connected Communities solutions being pioneered by Cisco could be applied to such remote, disparately populated regions in order to help drive local government services productivity over the wide geographical area under their management.

I can also envisage sensors placed in refuse bins in beauty spot tourist areas, that alert the authorities over the network when the approach a full status. Such IoT sensor networks could deliver next generation road safety and environmental protection.

The Technical and Business Challenges of Broadband Provision in Rural Areas

Of course broadband provision is challenging in certain parts of the world.  UK mobile provider EE clearly recognizes these challenges in the rural areas such as the Scottish Highlands. However in many cases, the technology to deliver cloud and IoT services in internet-poor locations such as the Scottish Mountain Ski areas is already available. I am confident that innovative business models, and win-win business/service provider partnerships, can be formed to enable today’s service providers to win the IoT prize.

From a technology perspective, this starts from providing the “state of the practice” high speed data services coupled with innovative long reach, low power, radio technologies. Examples include the Long Range Radio standards (“LoRa”), already available in Cisco’s IoT router portfolio. Other examples include solutions delivered by Cisco Services in “internet-challenged” locations.  Back in 2004 – yes that long ago – we enabled the first bow-to-stern internet access to cruise ships.  We’ve delivered internet access to help education and healthcare initiatives in remote communities, enabled IoT in mines (!), and designed rugged wireless infrastructure for use in hostile environments including oil refineries.

Service providers with a strategic view will recognise these opportunities as a way to transform their operations from suppliers of data pipes to suppliers of IoT solutions, from network connectivity providers to being providers of connected transport and enablers of “connected outdoor experiences” – and indeed even “connected mountain experiences” as the Telus example shows.

Such innovative thinking would enable, for the West Highlands of Scotland and other rural locations across the world, the move from the current “digital wilderness” to digital transformation enablement, and from the “Internet of Nothing” to the “Internet of Things”.

If you’d like to discuss this topic in more depth, please reply in the comments below or ping me on Twitter .

PS: My inspiration for this blog came from a few sources as I mentioned in part 1 of this blog.  In particular, for this part, the Telus example was pointed out by University of Strathclyde MBA program students as part of a “Time2Give” initiative I helped setup between the university and  Snowsports Scotland.


Stephen Speirs

SP Product Management

Cisco Customer Experience (CX)