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Faster internet for some, but politicians want more

Launching superfast fibre with the help of Shetland’s own Hazel Tindall, the world’s fasted knitter, are (from left): HIE’s director of regional development Carroll Buxton, BT Scotland director Brendan Dick, director of Digital Highlands and Islands Stuart Robertson, the Advocate General for Scotland Lord Wallace, SIC leader Gary Robinson and Bill Murphy, BT’s managing director of Next Generation Broadband – Photo: Hans J Marter/ShetNews

SUPERFAST broadband has arrived in Shetland as part of a £146 million project to get the Highlands and Islands connected.

 Up to 4,000 households and businesses in Lerwick, Quarff and Sumburgh are the first on any Scottish island to be able to access broadband speeds of up to 80mbps.

Former isles MP Jim Wallace, now better known as Lord Wallace of Tankerness, was back in Shetland on Wednesday to formally declare the lines open.

During a presentation at Mareel, BT Scotland director Brendan Dick pledged that by the end of next year at least 76 per cent of islanders would have access to next generation fibre broadband.

Bill Murphy, BT’s managing director for Next Generation Broadband described the completion of this first phase of the publicly funded project as an “historic day” for Shetland and the Highlands and Islands.

“High speed broadband will bring social and economic benefits not just to Shetland, but to the wider Highlands and Islands as well,” he said.

“Fast, fibre broadband is key to the economies of our island communities and will become, in its own way, just as vital as the sea and air links that islanders rely on for transport and trade.”

Pressed by local politicians for 100 per cent broadband coverage, Murphy responded by saying that connecting the remaining 24 per cent of households could only be done “collectively” and in partnership with local authorities and government.

Stuart Robertson, HIE’s director of digital for the Highlands and Islands, said the task would cost at least another £146 million without reaching everybody.

Phase two of the current roll-out is scheduled to start in the second half of 2015 when the service will be taken to Shetland’s more rural communities such as Voe, Symbister, Brae, Scalloway and Sandwick.

NHS Shetland chairman Ian Kinniburgh said the arrival of superfast broadband was “great news”, but added that he wanted more.

He said “connectivity” was the key to providing many medical and care services today and many of Shetland’s remote communities continued to be excluded from that.

Kinniburgh also warned of the danger that superfast broadband could make “society more unequal” as it divides communities into those who are connected and those who are not.

Speaking after the event, SIC leader Gary Robinson said he was confident that “through partnership working” all premises in the isles could be connected by 2020.

“This is a significant day. We now see superfast broadband available in Shetland to a large number of people,” he said.

“Ultimately we want to see 100 per cent, that is what we are all working towards.

“From the discussions we had today we see a willingness from BT and Highlands and Islands Enterprise to work in partnership with the local authority to reach that goal.”

One way of doing that, Robinson said, would be to consider using some of the surplus generated by the council’s own telecommunication company, Shetland Telecom, to reinvest in the community.

“We should not look for problems here, we need to look for solutions,” he said.

“The local authority needs to come together with HIE and BT. I don’t think 100 per cent by 2020 is out of the question at all. That is what we should aim for.”

The current publicly funded £146 million project, administered by HIE, is part of a £780 million UK-wide investment to bring superfast broadband to 95 percent of British households by 2017.