Remembrance of Camerons Past

On both shores of Loch Arienas, to the right before reaching the Isle of Mull ferry at Lochaline, are the remains of once-thriving towns, abandoned during the Highland Clearances.

Their laird, Miss Christina Stewart from Edinburgh, had been advised to replace people, mostly of the Cameron clan, with far more profitable sheep.

Today’s population is about a tenth of that before the Clearances, with slightly over one person per square mile of land in the Morvern Peninsula. The few remaining properties are more likely to accommodate temporary residents, either passing tourists or affluent weekenders from Glasgow.

A few years ago, the Internet and telecommuting looked set to change the fate of Morvern, much of Wales, the West Country, and many other tracts of our glorious countryside.

This new breed of homeworker might recline in the sun on Spitbank Fort, just off Southsea seafront, and work as effectively from there as they could in Canary Wharf. Most recently, with the advent of ultra-portable devices like iPhones, iPads, and the MacBook Air, we can now carry all we need in a small rucsac, except for the Internet connection itself.

There’s the rub.

You can sit at a coffee-house in London and do business with Shanghai, but such connectivity costs, so is only provided where there are abundant users.

As Morvern and adjacent Ardnamurchan cannot even muster a two-lane road between them, the prodigious cost of running fibre-optic cabling to their furthest reaches is commercially unjustifiable, and even 3G remains a pipe dream. Those with fat wallets and country seats might stretch to satellite broadband, but that is hardly for the rest of us.

At first, Fujitsu offered up to 10 Gbps to around 5 million rural customers provided that they got the lion’s share of government grants. But in 2013 they backed out, leaving just British Telecom to augment its near-monopoly of rural telecommunications.

There is an irony here that once, in its previous guise within the Post Office, our then state-owned provider took delight in bringing telephones to some of the wildest and most remote parts of the UK; not so now it is directed at returning dividends to its investors. Without heavy subsidies, no provider seems willing to invest its own funds in major rural development.

Many rural communities have taken the matter into their own hands and set up their own village systems, and there is a small but innovative commercial sector offering off-the-peg solutions.

These are of little help to the properties strung out alongside the shores of lochs, country lanes, and the like. Where there is good 3G coverage, wireless broadband extenders (WiBes) can be effective, but the lower the population density, the less the chances of getting usable 3G signal.

One answer might have been to have invested the large sums generated by the sale of radio spectrum to mobile phone service providers. The 3G auction in 2000 realised over £20 billion, but that of the 4G spectrum in 2013 raised only a tenth of that, which seems to have disappeared back to central government.

If we are to revitalise our countryside, ease the pressure on urban infrastructure, and realise the benefits of technology, then Government and industry must look beyond even the next election and immediate profits, and invest for future decentralisation.

Given the persistent myopia of successive governments, Morvern’s extraordinary hazel and oak woods will most probably rest in splendid isolation, and today’s Camerons (even those entering a second term in high office) will not right the wrongs of their dispossessed forbears.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 27 issue 12, 2011.