What about Orkney's Connectivity

Recently, the 2019 Halifax (Bank of Scotland) Quality of Life Survey crowned Orkney as the best place to live in the United Kingdom.  Having known Orkney for the best part of a decade, I am unsurprised by the overall result.  Personally, I would not choose anywhere else to live.  I have always found Orkney to be a welcoming friendly home with a strong community spirit.  There is so much to enjoy here.  From cultural heritage, nature and wildlife, and the creative industries, to name a few.

The danger in a superficial glance at this Survey is that it makes Orkney into a utopia.  The results perfectly sell this ‘cold’ island because news articles use romantic imagery and the allure of an idyllic island life.  It is obvious that this type of promotion is working as the increasing tourist numbers indicate.  From the outside, life on these islands may look idyllic though it is not for everyone.  The reality can be harsh. 

When I took a closer look at the factors taken into consideration for this Survey, I was surprised that the presence of ‘good broadband’ had been included in the overall result.  One of the obstacles of living on these islands is its connectivity and capability issues.  Only taking account of download speeds, it is fortunate that Orkney could have topped the Survey’s results at all as it is no secret that these are dreadful.  This is backed up through Orkney topping the Which? analysis of speed checker data in 32 Council areas as having the lowest average broadband speed in the UK (3 Mbps).  Whilst Superfast Broadband is available in some areas, in others service costs are prohibitive, there is unreliable connectivity or no provision whatsoever due to challenging geography or absent infrastructure.    

Digital connectivity is crucial for islanders for many reasons.  Firstly, we are all part of the global information economy where we depend on generating, processing, and applying information.  Having access and use of information is vital.  Secondly, island communities need to ‘stay in touch’ with those across the water as it pulls them away from isolation, insularity, remoteness and vulnerability.  Being part of the global information economy ensures competitiveness.  Despite the many positives felt of being involved in the Information Age, many Orcadians feel the pinch of the ‘digital divide’ and risk being left out of the digital revolution.  There are constant calls by officials, organizations and communities to rectify this.  Locally, the Northern Isles Digital Forum which meets twice a year provides a chance for individuals to voice their concerns and individual problems directly to their MSP and the relevant companies.  However, it seems that the main hope for useful connectivity rests on the Scottish Government’s drive for fostering universal access through the Digital Scotland Reaching 100% Programme (R100).  This fulfils a commitment to deliver superfast broadband access to 100% of premises in Scotland by 2021. 

What the Survey hasn't considered, and what I believe is of more importance, is how islanders are using the digital connectivity which is available.  Orcadians are savvy. Problems are actively tackled which is resulting in some extraordinary innovative solutions.  In this sense, it could be argued that Orkney is a technological ‘island laboratory' as its bounded nature has led to experiments in a wide variety of fields from renewables, transport, tourism, and creative industries, amongst others.   

Orkney has become a testbed for communications infrastructure.  This is illustrated by the 5G Rural First initiative, led by Cisco and the University of Strathclyde which will deliver trials to exploit 5G for rural communities and industries across Scotland, including Orkney.  At these sites different technologies are being used to overcome no to poor coverage.  They aim to determine how the next generation of wireless networks might revolutionise daily life and work.  The aim is to explore how 5G capabilities will impact smart farming, radio, connectivity, and other rural industries. 

Orkney has a growing technological hub for business (including local suppliers and larger global players).  Moreover, most Orcadian businesses have an online presence which is usually illustrated through a website and use of social media platforms.  According to the 2016 Orkney Business Survey carried out by Business Gateway and Orkney Islands Council, responses showed that information and communications technologies (ICT) had been embraced in the daily running of businesses, as individual workers can be based anywhere and still be ‘in the office’ through email and video conferences.  Local businesses are thriving as access to the internet has opened international markets.

Orkney is gaining global recognition in the renewable energy sectors.  Whether it be through Microsoft sinking a data centre off the coast to investigate whether it can boost energy efficiency, EMEC’s projects concerning marine or tidal energy, or the Big Hit Project which produces hydrogen energy.  These all rely on ICT and ‘good broadband’ to make them successful. 

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is an unmissable presence on the islands.  The University is part of a revolution to use virtual teaching methods and a virtual learning environment to ensure education can be accessed remotely.  This means that students can stay in their communities.  Although it is a predominantly online environment, students do relocate to study at UHI campuses.  For these students, alongside other incomers, and most Orcadians, they rely on ‘good broadband’ to stay connected to their family and friends located elsewhere. 

There have been technological research projects based on the island which have added to the experimentation and innovation which is occurring.  My own PhD research is concerned with ICT’s role in the governance of island communities.  I am undertaking a comparative study of islands with the archipelagos of Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles at its core.  The results of this research will create lessons for the governance structures, island communities and an awareness of what is going on further afield. I am discovering through my research that every individual island is different.  Every island is producing creative ICT solutions to the problems they encounter with differing levels of success.     

It is possible that in the future Orkney could become known as a ‘smart’ island.  These islands are laboratories for technological, social, environmental, economic and political innovation.  It is suggested that through the deployment of smart, integrated solutions with the use of cutting-edge technologies, islands can transform themselves and offer a higher quality of life to residents. I would argue that Orkney is on the trajectory to achieve this status despite its connectivity issues.

So, is the ‘good broadband’ that this Survey refers too enough to make Orkney the best place to live in the UK?  If based solely on the download speeds, then the answer is no.  However, digital connections are an integral part of how islanders go about their lives, improve their quality of life and stay connected.  ICT is actively shaping Orkney’s global presence and ensures it remains an international success story.  

Fleur Ward, PhD Researcher at the Institute for Northern Studies

Further reading:

Fletcher, Y. (2019) ‘Does your area have the UK’s slowest broadband?’. Which? (www.which.co.uk/news)

Orkney Islands Council and Business Gateway (2016) Orkney Business Survey 2016.

Smart Islands Initiative (2018) Smart Islands Initiative.   www.smartislandsinitiative.eu

5G Rural First (2018) 5G Rural First. www.5gruralfirst.org/