The Highlands and Islands superfast broadband project is the largest rural broadband project in the UK. The project is also one where of the four main bidders for BDUK projects, Cable and Wireless, Fujitsu, Commendium and BT, only BT remains in the running.
Costs for the project are likely to run into the £200m to £300m region, with funding coming from both public and private sectors. The contract signing is expected to take place in August 2012, with hopefully rough implementation details appearing after then, the most likely solution will be a mixture of FTTC/FTTP/fixed wireless and satellite services. If the costs of full fibre are considered then it is unlikely that this will be limited in its deployment, the population to be covered is some 380,000 people spread over some 38,500 sq km.
This is not the first investment in broadband in this area, the £70m Pathfinder North project provided basic broadband services to a number of remote areas, also back in 2005 there was the Broadband For Scotland project that helped BT install basic 0.5 to 2 Mbps at some 230 exchanges, and the more limited Exchange Activate (0.5Mbps) product at another 148 exchanges. Upgrades since 2005 have resulted in many speeds improving for those with lines short enough to run faster (rate adaptive means that 2Mbps should be possible on around 5.5km of telephone cable).
If BT does remain the sole bidder and wins the contract, there will be widespread criticism, but it seems the numbers don't stack up for other commercial operators, and for communities that wish to go it alone, then nothing is stopping them ignoring BT and installing their own solution, other than the cost of doing so.
Some of the problems in raising investment for broadband improvements are highlighted by an economists comments on the Virgin Media speed upgrades.
"I am a Virgin Media customer, and years ago they offered a 2Mb deal. It worked well and I was quite content. Then they increased the speed to 5Mb, and I didn't notice. Then they increased it again to 10Mb, and I didn't notice that either. So I am certain I won't notice the increase to 20Mb, just as I wouldn't notice an increase in my car's top speed."Chief Economist at CentreForum think tank
Of course comments like this ignore the problem that webpages are getting larger and more graphically heavy, the amount of interactive content and video is increasing too. The situation is akin to the ship building industry in the 1950's the tools of the 1920's were sufficient to meet orders, but when other countries invested in newer shipbuilding technology that then undercut UK shipyards price wise, the rapid decline took hold. The investment in broadband is not about being able to pay our car tax a few seconds quicker, but about ensuring the UK has the skills and businesses that will attract overseas investment.