View from the Street: It's time to press the shift key on island connectivity


View from the Street: It's time to press the shift key on island connectivity

Nearly 35 years ago, I enjoyed playing a computer game called Daredevil Dennis on the BBC Micro. If you don’t know what that is, think of it as a paving stone with a keyboard on the top that was connected to a monitor roughly the same size as a garden shed.

The game itself was pretty simple – you pressed the shift key to provide Dennis’s motorbike with acceleration and the spacebar allowed him to clear such obstacles as trees, houses and spiders. As far as I can recall, that was about it.

However, to get to the beginning of the game, there was no icon to tap. Instead, I had to connect a cassette recorder (see local museum for examples) to the back of the BBC Micro, set the volume at a level which nobody knew, type a few things on the huge keyboard, press ‘play’ and hope for the best.

The best rarely happened. People of a certain age will remember the noise. That screeching noise - always, inevitably, played at the wrong volume. The failure to load, often many times. Then the unbridled and wholly disproportionate joy when the game actually appeared and Dennis set off on his next pointless journey.

All of that rigmarole came to mind this week when I sat down to send an email with a small attachment to the mainland of Scotland, from one of the Hebridean islands.

The email sat stubbornly in the outbox like a cat asked by a human to ‘come here’. It wouldn’t move. Needless to say, I turned the laptop off. I turned it back on. Like every man everywhere in this situation, I threatened it with a more physical approach.

But it was an immovable thing and it may still be there for all I know. This 2.8mb file – a Word document containing a couple of pictures – had been paralysed by Islay’s glacial broadband.

The serious point of all this is that these communites deserve better. In the last couple of days here, I asked a few people to help me work out what value this island provides to the bigger island that sits alongside (the UK), administered as it is by city-centric governments in Edinburgh and London.

It turns out nobody really knows for sure, but it must be substantial. The eight functioning whisky distilleries here turn out millions of litres of brilliant whisky, which is in turn exported to nearly every other country in the world. At least two more distilleries will be open soon.

So it does not take much of a fag packet to work out that the economic contribution of Islay is perhaps disproportionate to what it gets back (sound familiar?)

The man at the local petrol station suggests holding back some of the revenue that leaves the island to invest in the fabric of the place and specifically the roads, the poor state of which is hard to exaggerate. Some parts of the roads here look – seriously – like they’ve been bombed.

In metropolitan circles, telecoms people, including regulators, talk about the power and potential of 5G, but no such conversation should be entertained until every part of the country – and the highlands and islands of Scotland in particular - is better served by the near monopolistic, multi-national corporations that control the speed that data moves across this country as a whole.

One of the most obvious attractions of the Hebridean islands is the remoteness. At several times this week, my young son and I have been completely isolated by big storms and heavy seas. We liked that.

But that remoteness clearly works both ways, and the governments in Edinburgh and London don’t seem to care much. Perhaps it’s time for Islay to go it alone. But that’s an argument for another day…

Malcolm Robertson is a founding partner of Charlotte Street Partners