Ricky Nicol: Scotland needs to fight for its (digital) freedom

Few would argue that the battle for hearts and minds in the first independence referendum was fought largely online '“ and the power of social media for campaigning became truly evident.
Online exchanges actually take place via a London-centric network. Picture: GettyOnline exchanges actually take place via a London-centric network. Picture: Getty
Online exchanges actually take place via a London-centric network. Picture: Getty

Despite the recent news from the SNP manifesto – of a pushed back, post-Brexit IndyRef2 – it is unlikely the noise across digital channels from both camps will diminish to any great extent.

It is however, worth bearing in mind that these online exchanges actually take place via a London-centric network.

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Whichever side of the great debate you fall, this is problematic. And it really is time Scotland, regardless of its political future, had greater autonomy of its digital network.

Suppose, as a comparison, you looked to travel abroad. Your only option was to travel to and from London on your way out and your way home. An airport-less Scotland required that you jump on a train to London before venturing out, both slowing and inconveniencing you.

This is the situation Scotland’s wider tech infrastructure faces – a centralised system not designed to provide for a disparate and largely rural society but for a linear and populated trunk.

So wherever we lie on the political spectrum it is key that we claim our connectivity independence to ensure that our businesses and our homes can truly flourish. Inverness, for example, is an almost 900-mile round trip from London. Not only is it inefficient for this to happen but, with the big bucks very much located in the English capital, the biggest service providers are less concerned in maintaining a high quality network the further afield from these metropolitan centres we get. But how do we go about cyber secession?

Firstly we will require joined-up thinking across the political spectrum – and significant investment to ensure the biggest operators broaden and improve networks in Scotland, while SMEs can step in to join up the dots.

Secondly, we need to start thinking of Scotland as an entity in its own right when it comes to international connections and physical infrastructure. Many people are unaware that while there are dozens of subsea cable systems from mainland Europe to the USA, none go through Scotland. What’s worse is that many go around us.

The stark reality is that we only have two or three cables leaving Scotland by sea; landing at Iceland and Norway. We need to build a strong market for digital infrastructure in Scotland that incentivises global telecoms companies to include us in their plans, much like Ireland has done to phenomenal success.

If Scotland had just ten per cent of the datacentre and connectivity business that Ireland has established with the likes of Amazon and Microsoft, the Scottish economy would be billions of pounds better off and we would have solved the problem of being 100 per cent reliant on what might – one day – become a foreign country.

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The more we are able to direct our own data across a high-quality and far reaching internal network, the better for speeds and therefore homes, businesses and of course security.

Far from isolationist, a policy that prioritises greater internal control will attract new business and ensure that when Scotland speaks to the world, its voice will be delivered loud and clear.

Ricky Nicol is Chief Executive of Edinburgh based telecommunications network provider Commsworld