March 9, 2020
By Vicky Masterson, The Herald
An aspiring lobster fisherman from the village of Achiltibuie in Ross and Cromarty sounds like an unexpected protagonist in Scotland’s ambition to be a global leader in high-speed digital connectivity.
But on closer inspection, Andrew Muir’s story makes sense.
“The place I’m from is what drives our interest in rural communities and the importance of connectivity,” said Mr Muir, chief executive and co-founder of Edinburgh-based telecoms consultancy FarrPoint.
“I was brought up in Achiltibuie, but left to go to university, like a lot of people who wanted to go on further. But now places like that are getting more opportunities to compete for people, because of connectivity.”
Since it was set up in 2007, FarrPoint has advised on more than £2 billion of investment in broadband networks, including enabling superfast broadband in 250 towns and villages across the Highlands and Islands.
“It’s essential to these communities,” Mr Muir said. “It supports everything that goes on, from school kids being able to do their homework because they need internet access, to small businesses being able to trade online. People also need to access the internet for social reasons because everybody else is on it. It helps sustain communities and removes that barrier of distance to a certain extent. It lets people work remotely and it’s just considered an essential bit of infrastructure now.”
FarrPoint has already helped deliver high-speed broadband to one in four Scottish homes – 750,000 properties. It is now working with the Scottish Government, through its infrastructure arm, Scottish Futures Trust, to scope what infrastructure will be needed, and where, to deliver fifth generation ‘5G’ mobile connectivity. With speeds measured in gigabits per second, 5G is predicted to be hundreds of times faster than current 4G connectivity.
“5G will mean a faster, more responsive, more robust mobile experience,” Mr Muir said. “The mobile operators (O2, Vodafone, EE and Three) will launch 5G in the cities by themselves. But it’s how far we want to go beyond this and who’s going to pay for that. Quite possibly some public sector money might be needed and, if that’s the case, we would be involved in helping public sector partners figure out what’s needed, where, and how it should be spent.”
5G will bring significant advances in connecting machines – as well as people. Sensors in lampposts or bins, for example, could be used to collect data and start delivering better applications for people.
“Sensors can monitor environmental conditions, like carbon emissions in the streets, or peatland conditions in the country” Mr Muir explained. “They can be used to make traffic lights more intelligent and react better to traffic flows. They can tell the council when bins need to be emptied; they can used for intelligent parking, and to track livestock – and a whole range of uses not even invented yet. All of this connectivity underpins better services and applications for everyone.”
One of FarrPoint’s innovative projects has involved developing a mobile coverage checker that helps organisations measure mobile coverage in their areas.
“A number of local authorities are putting these systems in their bin lorries because they go down every street in a council area and can easily capture true picture of mobile coverage,” Mr Muir explained.
In another project involving 175,000 users across Scotland, FarrPoint is working with the Scottish Government to develop the next generation of ‘telecare’ support to connect people in their homes with remote care professionals using advanced technology.
“A lot of our work is about helping organisations understand and implement connectivity technology to help them deliver better services,” Mr Muir said. “We get real pleasure from the fact that what we do makes a difference, because it’s about improving connectivity to communities and businesses throughout Scotland. And once you’ve got connectivity in place, you can do all sorts of things.”
After a BSc in electrical and communication engineering at Napier University in Edinburgh, Mr Muir returned to Achiltibuie to be a lobster fisherman.
“I was brought up with fishing and really enjoyed it. But then after about six months, I was told by my parents that I should really use my degree. So I moved down to BT’s research labs in the south of England, where I spent about a year. Then I moved back up to Aberdeen to do a PhD at Robert Gordon’s on microstrip antennas, a new type of antenna design that I contributed to.”
Mr Muir then spent five years as a network manager at Highlands and Islands Enterprise in Inverness, before moving into consultancy in 1995 with a global telecoms, media and digital services specialist. It was here that he met his FarrPoint co-founders, Richard Parkinson and Calum Lamont.
“There are different types of consultancies and we wanted to add practical value in whatever we did and not just produce nice reports that sit on a shelf,” Mr Muir said.
From a starting point of three, the company has grown to 20 people across three offices in Edinburgh, Manchester and London. It has current revenues of around £2 million with significant growth plans ahead. FarrPoint opened its first international office in Canada last year and may look to the US thereafter.
“We want to retain our central position in Scotland, expand further across the rest of the UK and develop internationally,” Mr Muir said.
1. What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
For business I thoroughly enjoyed speaking at a conference in Boulder, Colorado just because I added on several days to try out skiing in what must be some of the best conditions on the planet. I also enjoy travelling to Canada for business and for leisure, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. Closer to home, France and Italy for weather and food.
2. When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
Easy, my ideal job was wild salmon fishing. Our family were fishermen and each summer I was out at sea working bag nets. It was healthy, outdoors, and great fun.
3. What was your biggest break in business?
There have been many moments, but not huge breakthroughs that radically changed things. Examples are winning the first contract back in 2007, hiring our first employee, being awarded a contract to help design the Rio Olympics. We tend to take all these things in our stride and keep our focus!
4. What was your worst moment in business?
I hope it’s happened and I haven’t noticed it. Something that stuck with me was many years ago presenting our credentials at an interview panel for some consultancy work and because we knew the client, we made too many assumptions that they knew how we would do things. We lost what should have been ours to a competitor who didn’t make that mistake – lessons learned.
5. Who do you most admire and why?
I don’t think my upbringing lends itself to open admiration. I enjoy people who make me laugh and don’t take things too seriously. I have one childhood friend who’s a fisherman in Achiltibuie who always does that. I also admire my kids and those like them who have to navigate through this crazy world.
6. What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
Current book is Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Music varies wildly, but latest things are Port Cities, a band I discovered when out in Nova Scotia, the Yawpers, Cracker, Courtney Barnett – the list goes on.