A pioneering project to deliver broadband internet access to the Highlands and Islands via satellite is set to go 'live' at the end of the month (November) allowing local businesses to take advantage of faster download speeds and boost the use of e-commerce.
The programme, being developed by a partnership involving BTopenworld, BT's mass market ISP division, satellite-provider Gilat and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), is worth a total of over £2 million. It will initially be available only in the Highlands and Islands and Northern Ireland, and is due to be rolled out across the UK from next year.
The two-way satellite service will offer 'always-on' internet access with download speeds up to ten times faster than conventional phone line access. It is hoped that over 250 Highlands and Islands businesses and organisations could benefit from support under the pilot programme.
HIE will invest up to £250,000 in the project. This money will be used to assist businesses and organisations meet the one-off costs of installing the satellite access system and is intended to achieve a 'level playing field' - allowing business in the Highlands and Islands to access broadband services at an affordable cost. There will be two levels of service available - one for single PC (personal computer) subscribers and one catering for up to 4 PCs. The single PC service will have a monthly rental of £69.99, the multiple PC service will cost £139.99 a month.
HIE has been working for some time to achieve sustainable and affordable broadband access for the area and this project will help stimulate demand as well as demonstrating the advantages that faster data transfers can bring. One of the conditions of assistance is that the companies and organisations supported provide feedback on the quality and sustainability of the service - but also that they allow others in their areas to see their service in action. In this way the project can act as a large scale demonstration of the business benefits of broadband access. E-business advisers in each of the ten HIE Network Local Enterprise Companies have already been working to contact and identify key businesses and organisations in their areas who might benefit from the project and they will also be involved in highlighting the abilities and benefits of the service once it gets underway.
Douglas MacDiarmid, director of growing businesses at HIE said: "We are delighted to see this project coming to fruition, having been working towards it for some time. It's a key objective of ours to assist businesses in our area become as competitive as possible and having access to top-level communications is a major part of this effort.
"Many of the businesses and organisations in the Highlands and Islands will be unfamiliar with broadband services - both in terms of the technology required and the benefits it can bring. That's why a project like this is important - not only will it help those businesses most directly involved but it will be a showcase for others and will help to boost demand. Demonstrating this demand will be an important lever in encouraging telecommunications companies to consider the provision of other forms of broadband access."
Tony Harris, senior vice-president of BTopenworld said:
"Our satellite service will meet the demand for always on, high speed Internet services for businesses in more remote locations. We know from research that companies who use broadband enjoy real business advantages and this will mean that even more companies will be able to tap into these benefits. Businesses will also have access to a dedicated business resource centre with useful business information, tools and video rich content."
BT Scotland national manager Bob Downes said:
"BT Scotland has been working with BTopenworld to accelerate the availability of broadband on a truly nationwide basis and our satellite service will do exactly that for small businesses operating outwith our main towns and cities.
"The actual costs involved will be higher than current ADSL prices because of the level of technology involved. However, our research shows that the benefits clearly outweigh the costs because broadband provides a valuable business boost for our smaller business customers."