GOING north in this country has generally meant going without.

My mother grew up in Wick without electricity until Tom Johnston’s bold intervention in the late 1940s forced hydro-electricity on reluctant landowners and finally brought power to the glens.

But still the Highlands comes last.

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The train route north from Perth is still single-track as it was in the 19th century when it opened. And of course, the road north to the Highlands, the A9, will probably be amongst the last arterial routes in Scotland to be fully dualled.

But the story with the superhighway was meant to be different.

After various false starts resulting in “not spots” all over the Highlands and Islands, the Scottish Government decided the Highlands and Islands should come first in the rollout of superfast broadband.

That hasn’t happened, indeed the delivery of “superfast broadband” across the whole of Scotland – especially rural Scotland – has been a bit of a disaster. So much so that Nicola Sturgeon’s 2015 pledge to connect 100 per cent of properties by 2020 simply won’t happen unless the Scottish Government tears up the existing model of broadband rollout and starts again.

What might work better? A recent trip to the tiny Faroe Islands, located between the Shetlands and Iceland, revealed something rather more ambitious and successful. There 98 per cent 4G LTE coverage is backed up by an islands-wide fibre network. Indeed the cluster of 18 islands is set to have 100 per cent superfast mobile broadband by the end of 2016. That coverage extends out to the 200 mile fishing limit – to include the Faroese fishing fleet and passing cruise ships – and also a mile up in the air to cover important helicopter routes. There are no exceptions, no not spots and there is no argument about Faroese Telecom’s claim to provide the world’s best mobile broadband.

According to chief executive Jan Ziskasen, “In South Korea, allegedly the world’s number one spot for 4G connectivity, the average speed is about 60Mbps. We are in the process of overtaking that as the average speed here is approaching 100Mbps and will be higher before long. Once we launch the 800MHz a long-range frequency later this year, the islands will have a theoretical speed just below 1Gbps and that truly is speed in your pocket.”

As a word of reminder, the population of the Faroes is just 49,000 people. How did Faroese Telecom do it?

It’s a fairly straightforward story which has more to do with political control than technological pyrotechnics. Since the Faroes genuinely do have one of the most powerful devolved governments on earth, the state controlled company Faroese Telecom (FT) simply planned the investment, which was approved by its owner – the Faroese government.

Since the government, regulator and telecoms utility all serve the same customers and voters, they have created a telecoms licence that fits only them and their government has sensibly approved money for laying out fibre optic cable – a piece of physical infrastructure investment as vital as a new rail route.

In Scotland, by contrast, that job has been left to British Telecom in a flawed contract devised – bizarrely – by a wing of the NHS which the Scottish Government believed to have most experience with big IT contracts. The system created is so fiendishly complex it takes the breath away and has left rural Scotland badly adrift. How so?

Telecoms and broadband are reserved to Westminster and in 2013 only 52 per cent of premises in Scotland had access to superfast broadband at an average speed of 15.8 Mbps.

To get superfast broadband rolled out faster, the process in England was handed to Broadband UK, which devolved its authority to local councils and they got the job done as they saw fit. In Scotland, the job was handed to the Scottish Government, which opted not to delegate further and dealt with the whole of Scotland in two contracts. The first was for the Highlands and Islands but the Scotland contract had almost exactly the same terms and conditions. BT was the only company to bid for what have become very juicy contracts.

State aid rules mean the Scottish Government cannot stipulate how BT goes about the superfast rollout. So a very peculiar contract was hatched up by BT and National Services Scotland.

First BT gets paid for passing properties not connecting them. Astonishing but true. Instead BT fits fibre optic cable to “cabinets” and premises that are reasonably close should see good broadband speeds when they sign up for a new fibre broadband service. But once homes and businesses are more than 1.5 km from the Superfast cabinet, they experience a much-reduced service, and those further away may not get connected at all. This “long lines” problem isn’t just a rural issue – it also happens in towns and villages.

Second, BT is obliged to serve 95 per cent of premises but doesn’t have to identify which five per cent will be unconnected and thus free them to find alternative subsidised broadband providers. A new report by Scottish Rural Action observes; “Budget constraints and technical challenges meant around five per cent of Scotland was not part of the contracted rollout of superfast broadband. To address this, the Scottish Government created Community Broadband Scotland (CBS) with a budget of £16.5 million [but] communities have found it extremely difficult to find out what to expect for their area and projects have been delayed for long periods, years in many cases, trying to find out whether they will be covered or not.”

That’s because of the complex funding arrangement in the contract relating to commercially unviable areas. BT has to “uplift” these areas – much of the Highlands – to extend broadband but once enough premises have been connected, that postcode area becomes commercially viable so BT must start to repay its subsidy to the Scottish Government. The repaid subsidy enlarges the kitty, which lets BT tackle new commercially unviable areas and that creates massive uncertainty because the company’s plan for what it will connect changes each time broadband is installed. Nice.

Third, as a result of this bizarre funding method many communities have been waiting for ages to find out if they will be connected even though they are more likely to become BT’s unconnected 5 per cent. If they want to install broadband themselves, they must embark on a 30-day process asking BT and any other commercial operators if they intend to carry out broadband connection and then conduct another 30 days’ public consultation before they can get subsidy for their own project. But the 30-day process gives BT sufficient warning to connect a few of the households preparing to opt out and thus invalidate the efforts of the entire postcode. An opt-out project needs at least 500 properties to be considered sustainable. Critics say BT connects a swathe of properties through the middle of an area, leaving the 500 target unattainable and outlying properties with no hope of an economically viable connection.

As this contract nears an end, the Scottish Government seems to have recognised the mess it’s created and is conducting a property-by-property review to get an accurate idea of the patchwork that remains.

But it would be far, far simpler if the Scottish Government admitted its mistake and did what the Faroes and the Irish have already done and what Professor Michael Fourman’s paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh recommended in 2010 – and that’s putting government money directly into the provision of fibre-optic broadband infrastructure and leaving the final connections to BT, other private providers or community social enterprise.

What’s wrong with that option? It seems the Scottish Government fears there is not enough capacity amongst remote and rural communities to get the job done properly and since a botched job would impact on Nicola Sturgeon’s 100 per cent target, the Scottish Government will probably stumble on with BT.

THIS would be a disaster for the Highlands and Islands, and completely unnecessary since Faroese Telecom are ready and able to provide mobile broadband on Shetland as comprehensively as they have done on the Faroe Islands thanks to a fibre-optic cable that runs from the Faroes to Shetland and Orkney before dropping down to Banff. But whilst remote parts of the Shetlands are not identified as part of the unconnectable five per cent (yet) no subsidised connections can be made by anyone else.

So is the present system value for money? In a 2014 report Audit Scotland points out that it’s difficult to say “because BT is also the sole contractor for all other UK broadband projects.” Indeed MPs pressed to end this monopoly in July.

But after a year’s review, Ofcom prompted fury when it decided the structure of BT’s broadband wing Openreach should be reformed, not split off from the parent company.

It’s rumoured Ofcom bottled the break-up of BT over worries about the likely impact on BT’s £53 billion pension fund, one of the largest in Britain. John Fingleton, a former head of the Office of Fair Trading, tweeted: “It is BT one, Ofcom nil. Conduct regulation has failed, and this is just more failure.” Great.

But the Scottish Government seems to think its deal with BT is fine.

Last weekend SNP MSP Joan McAlpine called on the UK Government to match the EU’s commitment to rolling out 5G by 2025 and free public Wi-Fi by 2020 suggesting: “If the Tories fail to match this upgrade then Brexit Britain will increasingly look like last year’s model.”

But never mind the UK Tory Government, the Scottish Government could be taking steps to improve broadband rollout right now.

Faroes Telecom (FT) calculate it would take just to six months to improve cables and wiring throughout the Shetland Islands to provide a 4G service with 100 per cent coverage.

A deputation from Shetland Islands Council has already met with FT several times to nail down details of a possible deal. All that stands in the way is the current legislation.

Although telecoms is a reserved issue, the Scottish Government could intervene to press for a change in the way 5G licences are awarded in future.

Right now it could either end the “up to 95 per cent coverage” opt-out completely and demanding truly universal superfast broadband delivery, or require franchisees to specify where their missing coverage will be and allow other companies to supply it.

An Islands Bill is due in the first year of the new parliament and Shetland councillors are pushing for change in the regulation of telecoms as one of their top demands.

Will Nicola Sturgeon act to put the most remote parts of Scotland first for once, ditch the existing business model with BT, put cash straight into laying a fibre-optic cable to every part of Scotland and trust rural communities to do the final bits of connection themselves?

Or will rural Scotland be left with a broadband link as unfit for purpose as most of their road and rail links? The Scottish Government must decide.