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U.K., BT Push Broadband To Rural Scotland

Project will provide fiber optic connections to the northern-most parts of the U.K.

One of the most isolated parts of Great Britain will be brought into the 21st century with a fiber optic plan the company behind implementation says will be the country's "most complex and challenging broadband project ever."

The largest domestic British telco, BT, has been awarded a grant of £126.4 million ($191 million) of public money to hook up northern Scotland's Highlands and Islands. BT will provide the remaining £19.4m ($29.3 million) of the projected £145.8 million ($220.3 million) project.

That area covers the northern-most parts of the U.K.: Argyll and Bute, Eilean Siar, Highland, Moray, part of North Ayrshire (Arran and the Cumbraes), Orkney and Shetland. The geography and disparate population of the region present significant technological and cost challenges for the commercial rollout of broadband, BT said. Without state support, fewer than one in four properties would have fiber broadband via commercial rollout, BT estimated.

U.K. communications minister Ed Vaizey said, "The geography of the Highlands and Islands makes this project one of the most challenging in our nationwide rollout of broadband ... This will be a tremendous boost for the local Highland and Islands economies."

[ The U.K. plans to save money by moving more citizen services online. Is that a bad idea? See British Government's 'Digital By Default' Plans Challenged. ]

"Next-generation broadband enables businesses to compete on the international stage," said deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish Parliament, who also sees the work as one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in Scotland's history.

"It has the potential to transform the way in which we educate our children, provide health and social care, and deliver our public services."

Working with a regional development partner, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the project plans to connect 84% of homes and business in the area to fast broadband by the end of 2016. That organization's chief executive, Alex Paterson, predicted that, "high-speed fiber broadband in the Highlands and Islands will make a real contribution to our communities' prosperity, particularly for people in remote and rural areas."

To do that, the telco needs to lay no less than 800 km (497 miles) of new fiber, plus install hundreds of new street cabinets. The bulk of the project will use the fiber-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) approach, which can deliver connection speeds of up to 80 Mbps, with a smaller component of fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband. Ethernet, which can offer major cost and speed benefits for midsize businesses, will also become much more widely available as a result of the fiber build, BT said.

To extend the network to the Islands, new undersea cables will have to be laid at 19 crossings. That's going to make this biggest sub-sea engineering project [we have] undertaken in the U.K." said BT, also noting it is also the first project it's taken on with so many seabed crossings at once. Some 400 km (248.9 miles) of such cable will need to be laid.

Most of the public money is coming from the U.K. government's scheme for opening up better broadband rural access, Broadband Delivery U.K., which wants to see -- via a £2.5 million ($3.78 million) "innovation fund" element in the grant -- the partners explore ways to extending broadband beyond those initial 84% of residencies.

The rollout of next-generation broadband services will be delivered in phases that should begin this year and is expected to last three years.

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