A REMOTE Highlands community is enjoying a faster and more reliable broadband service thanks to Scottish Sea Farms and other local partners.
The village of Drimnin, located at the end of 30 miles of a single-track road from the A861 in the West Highlands, is home to just 57 properties, a village hall, a post office that opens only twice a week, and a whisky distillery.
Not included within any private or public sector plans for the roll-out of broadband in the foreseeable future, villagers had to contend with a slow, unreliable satellite connection that was subject to a delay more than 30 times slower than terrestrial systems.
This made it difficult to carry out everyday activities such as online banking, filing VAT returns, watching catch-up TV, installing anti-virus software or computer updates.
At the same time, Scottish Sea Farms was looking to enable remote feeding at its salmon farms around the Sound of Mull for those times when severe weather makes it unsafe to travel out by boat to the pens.
By joining forces, the salmon producer and the community have successfully overcome the challenges of the local geography to deliver broadband.
While Drimnin may be remote by land, it is just a few miles as the crow flies from Tobermory, meaning that a complex system of wireless radio links and repeaters would work, with the partners opting for the higher frequency band of 23 GHz to minimise any interference.
Scottish Sea Farms’ senior IT analyst and project leader, Forbes Baylis, said: ‘Traditionally, a wireless radio link requires a direct line of sight. However, the exposed location of some of our farms, combined with the natural geography of the area, meant this wasn’t an option.
‘Our proposed solution, in partnership with wireless specialists Rapier Systems, was to effectively ‘bounce’ the signal back and forth from different locations, but this was dependent on us securing permission to install the necessary masts and repeaters at the most suitable locations.
‘Drimnin Community Broadband CIC proved instrumental in reaching out to businesses, both in the village itself and across on neighbouring Mull, including Tobermory Harbour Association, Scottish Water and Ardnacross Farm, situated near the waterworks.’
Mary Macgregor, finance officer at Tobermory Harbour Association, said: ‘We are a community company and work to provide facilities for the benefit of the local area.
‘As such, we are more than happy to help our neighbours across the water, Drimnin community, by hosting the equipment for their new community broadband.
‘We are also pleased to support Scottish Sea Farms in developing their remote feeding facility.
‘Scottish Sea Farms are important to the community as employers, and the ability to remote feed and monitor during bad weather will create a safer working environment for the fish farm workers.’
Drimnin Community Broadband CIC also had to ensure the new service would be financially viable.
David Campbell, one of the CIC’s founding members, said: ‘Scottish Sea Farms very generously contributed £55,000.
‘Likewise, the Morvern Community Trust and National Lottery Fund awarded us £12,500 and £10,000 grants respectively, all of which helped towards the infrastructure and installation.
‘Equally important, though, was ensuring that the new service would be viable to run in the long-term, so we introduced two price packages that makes it affordable to all.’
The result was that well over 40 of the village’s 57 homes and businesses signed up in advance to a two-year subscription, enabling Drimnin Community Broadband CIC to place the order for its own 200mb leased line from BT, organise construction works and even start digging the trenches for the power cables.
‘Being in the middle of nowhere, Drimnin is the sort of community where we do lots of things for ourselves, but this particular project has been hugely popular with everyone in the village,’ said Campbell. ‘The whole community pulled together to help make it happen.’
The residents of Drimmin have welcomed the initiative. Rhonda Newsham, of Drimnin Estate – a working farm which also offers holiday accommodation, said: ‘We’ve gone from a situation where we had a monthly wi-fi allowance that guests very often used up within the first week, meaning we had to buy costly top-ups, to being able to advertise that we have unlimited free wi-fi.
‘Not only that, but now when the local TV signal goes down in stormy weather, as it often does in winter, we’re able to watch via iPlayer.
‘It really is changed days, so much so that we’re now looking to install smart TVs in each of our rental properties.’
And Annabel Thomas, founder of the Ncn’ean Distillery, said: ‘Since first opening our doors in 2017, we’ve struggled with even the most basic tasks such as taking card payments, with the result that sometimes we had to leave our customers waiting while we tried to fix the connection or arrange to collect the money later.
‘Now, we’re able to do online banking, video conferencing, screen sharing – all the latest advances that make running a business a whole lot easier.’
Mike Foulis, resident and another founding member of the Drimnin Community Broadband CIC, said the move is good for the future of the village.
‘One of the problems facing any remote community is how to attract more families, and broadband is key to this.
‘Accessing homework assignments, undertaking distance learning, downloading music, computer gaming, messaging friends on social media – it’s all done online, making fast, reliable broadband as essential to younger generations as electricity and water.
‘These things become disproportionately important in a community as remote as Drimnin. Because of the disadvantage of distance, you can’t just nip out for things like you can do in cities or more central areas.’
Scottish Sea Farms, together with rural broadband company HebNet CIC, brought broadband to residents and businesses of Knoydart and Loch Nevis earlier in the year.
And the salmon farmer is now in talks with a third remote local community to introduce similar connectivity to its farms and the surrounding area.
Jim Gallagher, managing director of Scottish Sea Farms, said: ‘This latest connectivity project is another strong example of how we are continually investing in our farming practices but in a way that also delivers maximum benefit to the communities in which we live and work.
‘Teamwork, partnership, collaboration, call it what you like – it’s community spirit at its best.’
Picture: The new broadband service in Drimnin is now live after nine months of preparation