Scotland prepares to blaze a trail for data centres
As demand for high-speed internet skyrockets with the still-growing necessity of work from home, nations are rapidly seeking to expand their broadband access.
Both new connections to international networks and diversified network routes to ensure uptime in the case of a line disruption are vital to the economic wellbeing of modern countries, let alone the general safety and welfare of communities that rely on the internet to stay connected to each other and to resources.
With many remote and island communities, Scotland in particular has a critical need. While Scotland’s broadband needs are primarily served via terrestrial cables from England in the south, they have little direct connection to international high-capacity cables. Despite Scotland’s nearly 10,000 km of coastline, there are no major international high capacity fibre-optic cable landings. Such a cable landing would be a major boost to Scotland, both in terms of route diversification (ensuring uptime even in the event of an accidental interruption of southern lines) and attracting more high-tech jobs to the region.
Scottish Futures Trust’s (SFT) “Host in Scotland” initiative aims to attract new international subsea fibre and data centre infrastructure to Scotland. The northernmost coast of Scotland, especially near Dunnet Bay, offers immense capacity for tidal power generation. One option to capitalise on this potential, while supporting the nationwide growth of technologies such as 5G, AR/AI and IoT, is to build data centres. However, the north of Scotland is sparsely populated, and, therefore, the challenge is to connect such a data centre to communities in the south. SFT commissioned FarrPoint and Pioneer Consulting to investigate the cost, complexity, and deliverability of a number of subsea fibre options from the north coast of Scotland to Edinburgh.
With the goal to connect Dunnet Bay down to Cockenzie, and southward from there, one might think a purely terrestrial route might be possible. However, there are already existing land cables for local communications along the most advantageous routes. Mimicking those lines would not improve route diversity, in that if one line were lost, all communications in the north would be threatened. Remaining terrestrial options were considered prohibitively expensive.
Purely subsea routes are also out of the question, because of an array of hard and soft constraints:
The same tempestuous waters that make for excellent sources of tidal electricity make the coast off of Dunnet Bay unfit to lay or host a cable.
Fishing grounds are extremely prolific in Scottish Waters, containing the most fished areas in all of the UK, and one of the most intensively fished spots in the world. This adds to the complexity of permitting in terms of disturbance impacts and mitigations.
As a leader in renewable energy, the Scottish coastline has many wind farms that cannot easily co-exist with cables.
The Scottish coast is rife with shipwrecks. As illustrated in the left image below, thousands of shipwrecks line Scottish shores, dating from the Spanish Armada and even farther back. Dutch East India Company ships, German WWI Battleships, and everything in between make the seabed tricky to traverse with a cable and the potential for new discoveries entirely possible.
Environmental and conservation concerns also need to be considered both in terms of impact and its implications to project cost. The image on the right below shows Scottish Marine Protected Areas, as well as priority habitats and species locations - the onus is on the developer to demonstrate these are safeguarded.
We found that the safest, most efficient, most cost-effective route would be a mix of festoon subsea cables along the coast, where possible, and short terrestrial stretches where the seas are inhospitable. The image below shows a diagram of this proposed route.
This creative combination of land and sea routes would curtail significant construction and maintenance costs versus either method alone. Importantly, the study also considered the cost of the route in terms of carbon emissions as well as the direct financials.. Such out-of-the-box planning is necessary to secure stable, high-capacity broadband for the people of Scotland and to attract clean, forward-thinking jobs to the country.
Both Scottish natives, Iain Ritson is Director of Client Solutions and Lorraine Gray is Director of Permitting at Pioneer Consulting, the full-service submarine fiber optic telecommunications consulting and project management company. The Full Report, “North-Eastern Scotland: Subsea Connectivity Feasibility Study,” can be accessed on the Host in Scotland website here.