New network powers pupils’ success

Schools across the Highlands are set to benefit from gigabit-capable levels of broadband service after the transition to a new network provider.

Almost 200 schools across Scotland’s largest geographical local authority area will see increased bandwidth available to them after Highland Council penned a new multi-year agreement with BT.

BT will deliver services through the recently procured Scottish Wide Area Network (SWAN) framework, and working with the council will transition and transform the existing network services to a modern, ‘fit for future infrastructure’.

Jon Shepherd, Head of ICT and Digital Transformation at Highland Council, explained that there are now over 30,000 Chromebooks issued to pupils across the region. As such, the demand for digital is ever-increasing.

“Our hungriest users continue to be schools,” he says. “From P6 onwards, all our pupils have their own devices. And in the earlier years at primary school, there are shared devices, so we have an awful lot of devices to connect, and an ever-growing demand for bandwidth in education.

“One of the key things we have built into the new SWAN framework is getting fibre connections at the right bandwidth and at the right price into our schools.”

Highland Council will transition to BT’s network over the course of the next two years, connecting not only schools but over 340 sites, including offices and council buildings. Shepherd said he hopes that the new contract will lead to “more consistent levels of service”, especially to the education estate. “When we were first rolled out Chromebooks, there were some quite significant performance problems in certain locations, because there was too much congestion on the network,” says Shepherd. “One thing I can be sure of is that the demand in schools is going to keep on increasing but I think we have that future-proofing now in place through this contract. And we will get that, as we’re heading into gigabit-plus connections, certainly in some of our secondary schools.”

The council is also undergoing its own internal digital transformation. There is a corporate plan in place to digitise much of the back-office processes, to increase efficiencies and improve services to local people. The network will be used as the backbone to enable the use of new technologies such as IoT.

“I think that’s going to get an even higher priority over the next couple of years with the budget challenges we have,” says Shepherd. “Although we have done quite a lot in terms of public-facing services online, the next stage is very much looking at what happens behind the scenes in the back office. So, it will be the smooth transfer of data between systems; it will be people being able to work any anywhere, accessing data anywhere but in a secure way.”

He adds: “Automation, all of that, clearly is dependent on good connectivity. And we will have increasingly resilient, reliable, good value, connectivity. So, it really is the backbone required for us to focus on improving how we operate.”

To that end, the council has invested in some IoT-powered building management systems. However, Shepherd says as the council continues to strive towards its Net Zero aspirations, there will likely be further deployments that can help improve the carbon management of their estate.

“We don’t always have the data that we need to make the right decision about our building stock, but I think going forward we will move into that world a lot more,” says Shepherd. “One of the challenges around that has been getting the security model right. Moving into a zero-trust type model is going to enable a lot more flexibility in terms of how we do that.”

With the advent of fibre connectivity, Highland Council has been able to move away from some of the more bespoke forms of digital connectivity, such as radio masts. Shepherd believes more standardised digital infrastructure will deliver ‘knock-on benefits’ to local populations across the Highlands, where digital connectivity is a key deliverable in the Programme for the Highland Council. 

The move to zero-trust architecture, and the flexibility of the network in that regard is key: as more staff work from home, this trend will only continue, says Shepherd. “It’s a whole different space we’re in now, and will be in the future. We used to have fairly static sites, and the focus was on stopping anything coming into that protected network. Well, we’ve turned that on its head. Now, we’ve got people working anywhere and our sites aren’t as important as they were. It’s a whole different sort of security and resilience model, and what BT are offering through SWAN goes a long way to meeting that.”

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