In all the years I’ve spent working for Orkney Islands council, one thing has always been very clear to me: these islands are some of the worst places in the country for connectivity, and it’s holding back the people who live and work here.
That isn’t a complaint, nor a criticism. It’s simply a side effect of the current system, where it doesn’t always make economic sense for network owners to unlock mobile spectrum in sparsely populated areas.
And this isn’t about having technology for technology’s sake, either. It’s about the opportunities greater connectivity brings – opportunities that people on the Orkney Islands miss just for having been born here.
Take our schoolchildren as an example. We have relatively high rates of educational attainment on the Orkney Islands, but without fast and reliable connectivity those pupils are unable to make the most of all that learning in the way they could in other parts of the country.
Even practical day-to-day things that most schoolchildren in the UK take for granted, like being able to do their homework in the evenings, become incredibly difficult when you don’t have reliable connectivity. And all of these little things add up to stifle opportunity.
It’s a huge shame, and one I’m hoping we can rectify once and for all through 5G RuralFirst.
Exploring new opportunities
Part of the reason I’m so excited about the 5G trials we’re doing here on the Orkney Islands is that we’re exploring so many unknowns in a way we’ve never done before.
Living here, you don’t always fully grasp what you’re missing out on from a connectivity point of view until you leave the islands for the mainland. It’s only then that you realise how limiting things are for us on that front.
But equally, we don’t really know what the impact having better connectivity is going to have on the communities here. Sure we can hypothesise that it will increase opportunities for business, education and social interaction, but exactly what those opportunities look like we don’t yet know.
These trials are our way of finding out, ultimately proving the value of bringing high-speed mobile connectivity to these islands.
That said, the most crucial part of the process will come after we’ve achieved that.
Creating a lasting legacy
For me this project is about so much more than simply proving technology works or that there is value in bringing connectivity to rural areas. Those elements are absolutely important, but I want this to result in real, lasting change that will bring real benefits to Orkney Islands residents.
That means we have to make sure any opportunities we uncover are acted upon, and that we work hard to bring in the kind of investment that can turn these exciting experiments into long-term realities.
This project feels like a real turning point for the Orkney Islands, and I’m confident it has the potential to ensure the connectivity issues of our past don’t become our future.
If we get this right and create a legacy for the project, we could transform the lives of people on these islands for generations to come.