How Shetland Islands Council replaced its network

A week ago, Shetland Islands Council turned on its new network, linking 60 properties, many in remote locations, to the web. PublicTechnology talks to Stuart Moncrieff, the council’s executive ICT manager, about the challenges involved.

PublicTechnology talks to Stuart Moncrieff, executive ICT manager at the council, about the challenges involved in delivering the project within budget.

PublicTechnology: Why did you create a new network?
Stuart Moncrieff: Up until this month, along with four other councils we were part of the Pathfinder North network. This was created in 2007, and was funded by the Scottish Government, which put in £63 million to fund the contract with Vodafone (Cable & Wireless Worldwide). That funding was always due to come to an end in March. Thanks to the subsidy, we were previously paying £65,000 a year, which was a good deal, but we faced an increase to £650,000 a year to continue with the contract. The other councils in the pathfinder – Argyll and Bute Council, Highland Council, Moray Council, Orkney Islands Council – have decided to extend their existing contract. We decided to look at other options.

PT: What were your requirements for the new network?
SM: We needed an ICT network to connect to offices, schools, care homes, ferry terminals and other council properties outside Lerwick. The properties are on 60 sites across a wide area from Unst to Fair Isle, and Foula to Skerries. We wanted to keep to spending around the same amount each year that we had been paying under Pathfinder North.

PT: How did you find partners for the new network?
SM: We wanted to provide a fit-for-purpose network within our existing budget, and issued a tender to test the market place in September 2012. We knew that we couldn’t use the existing hardware because it didn’t belong to us, so we tried to make it as flexible as we could – companies could offer expertise, equipment and technological solutions. In the end, we appointed two partners – satellite broadband provider Avonline and connectivity firm The Networking People. TNP helped us draw up and implement the plan for implementing the new network.

PT: What is the cost of the new contract?
SM: We are paying a £400,000 in capital set-up costs and an on-going annual cost of £80,000. The revenue costs will mainly cover mast rentals and maintenance for the infrastructure we can’t get to ourselves, plus satellite, fibre and ADSL rental costs.

PT: How is the network going to work, and how will it reach remote facilities?
SM: We are taking a mix-and-match approach with five different work streams. Firstly, the council already has installed fibre cable connections for economic development purposes on some of its main roads. We knew we could connect 11 sites ourselves from these links. Another half a dozen sites were using ADSL connections and have low usage, so these can remain on these connections. There were also seven sites where we decided we could install our own microwave dishes on other buildings we owned in order to reach them. Those were relatively straightforward.

On a further 23 sites, we needed to use commercial masts to install new microwave dishes. Avonline also helped us to connect a dozen or so sites using satellites. We had always assumed that satellite would work badly for telephony, so we would not be able to run call management systems through this method. However, we tested it and it works fine. We can also get fast internet speeds through this method.

PT: What speeds does the network deliver?
SM: Obviously, the fibre-connected sites will deliver very high speeds. The microwave sites are delivering 30Mb. ADSL is a bit slower, and the satellite connections deliver up to 16Mb. The latter are limited to smaller sites because of the bandwidth they are capable of delivering.

PT: How did migration from the existing network go?
SM: It went seamlessly. We tested all the network connections before launch and on 21 pressed the button to shut down the old network and switch to the new one. The feedback we are getting is that users say the new network is an improvement.

PT: How will the introduction of the Scottish Wide Area Network impact your new network?
SM: We will be reviewing our network connections once SWAN comes in. It was originally going to be available from 2016, but delays in the procurement process mean that date is likely to be later.

Colin Marrs

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