Balquhidder is an hour’s drive from Stirling’s city centre, taking in spectacular mountain and lochside views in the grandeur and open spaces of Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. With a resident population of around 250 people, it might be seen as an unusual location to be experiencing a bit of a boom for local businesses and those working from home, but it’s been made possible through the community’s ambition and determination to bring high-speed broadband to the area. Balquhidder is now able to reach speeds of 1GBps and provide community owned broadband to all 197 properties in the glen.
Achieving such exceptional connectivity didn’t come easily and we spoke to local resident, project manager and retired police officer David Johnston who explained that it took time, challenges, a lot of people getting their hands quite dirty, a mountain of bacon rolls and a river of coffee to realise the dream.
“We started initially on the project in 2007, conducting a survey to find out more about what was needed for Balquihider’s small community to thrive. It’s situated in such a mountainous and relatively remote location, it wasn’t surprising that connectivity was the main issue and the one that united the community. At that time, only 29 properties in the area had broadband and half of them reported poor connection speeds. 54 properties wanted to be connected, and there was also a real need for mobile connectivity which no networks had been able to provide.”
Bringing together a range of skills and experience, members of the community created a business case and proposal for bringing high speed broadband to the glen. With this, they secured an investment of £170,000 from Stirling Council who along with the Scottish LEADER programme provided additional funding of £30,000 to support a project officer. Bogons Limited assisted with cash flow and are now in the process of recovering their outstanding investment through the Rural Gigabit Voucher Scheme.
And that’s when the hard work started, with the commitment and hard graft of residents and businesses bringing about the installation of a 22-mile broadband network.
David Johnston, one of the directors of Balquhidder Community Broadband explained: “The project was only achievable in partnership with Bogons Limited as their Internet Service Provider. The project brought the community together. Residents volunteered after work and on weekends to dig trenches and lay protective tubing for optic cables, even on occasions dragging the cables through forests metre by painstaking metre. The main benefit from the faster broadband is that people can work from home and during COVID-19 that’s been invaluable. The different is huge with businesses saving money and employing additional staff.”
The work of Balquhidder’s community has been recognised nationally, as a shelf-full of awards will testify. In 2018 the project won the Transport and Infrastructure category of the 2018 Scottish Rural Innovators Award and also scooped the award for Best Community Project at INCA (Independent Networks Co-operative Association). Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Balquhidder community won the category “Best Countryside Digital Innovator” at the 2020 Scottish Rural Awards.
The community now sees itself as a viable alternative for those wanting to strike that all important work-life balance. As well as meaning businesses such as Highland Marketing have been able to continue and thrive despite the pandemic, the excellent connectivity really made all the difference to families struggling with home schooling, working from home, and keeping in touch with relatives throughout 2020’s lockdown.
David and the army of community volunteers are keen to capitalise on the lessons learned as well as their great connectivity and want to investigate ways of providing virtual or telehealth care to residents in the area, saving vital NHS funds as well as time for everyone. Already Stirling Council has been able to provide training for digital inclusivity at the local village hall, and there are hopes that this can be further rolled out to assist with training for businesses.
Those involved in the Balquhidder Broadband project are keen to share the benefit of their experience with other rural communities and you can find them on https://balquhidder.net/.