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Cooper calls for clarity on broadband plans

Development committee chairman Alastair Cooper.

COUNCILLORS have again expressed disappointment at the lack of clarity from BT about its plans to improve broadband coverage in Shetland. 

Development committee chairman Alastair Cooper said he was “frustrated” that the telecoms giant had promised to come to the islands this month to explain its upgrade plans for 2015, but “we’re now on 22 April and there’s not been a peep about it”.

Speaking at a meeting in Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday morning, Cooper expressed concern about the lack of communication from BT and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) about its intentions.

He added that there was a general worry in the wider Shetland community about telecommunications provisions: “Broadband is not even working very well in Lerwick, we have no Vodafone through large parts of Shetland, the blackberry is fairly silent… “

The committee heard a report from development services director Neil Grant about the future of high speed broadband provision in Shetland.

“What we need to be very clear on is the best mechanism for 100 per cent broadband coverage in Shetland and what is the best way to get there,” he said. “It might be that we do what every other local authority does and sit on our hands – I don’t think that’s the way forward.”

The report added that the SIC corporate plan’s commitment to have high speed broadband available to 84 per cent of the Shetland population by 2017 will need a “concerted effort by all those parties involved in Shetland’s telecommunications future”.

Meanwhile, Cooper asked the committee to hold a special meeting before May 27 to discuss how to address “staffing issues” at Shetland Telecom.

The project, which is part of the SIC’s economic development unit, has two members of staff. He believes they are “absolutely stretched right to the limit”.

Cooper said: “At the end of the day, we have a very significant reputational issue for the council – with two workers, if anything happened to them, god forbid, we’d probably not be able to fulfil our commitments to our plans.

“We need a resource in that unit so that some of the work can go in other directions.”

Shetland Telecom, set up in 2009 to oversee fibre optic development in the isles, has an annual turnover for £450,000 from direct sales. That is more than five times the amount anticipated when it was created.

Lerwick South councillor Amanda Westlake added that Shetland’s communications link is a pertinent aspect of the isles’ ability to grow its economy.

She said: “Telecommunications is an absolutely key element of business generating for this island. I’m very happy to support anything we need to do to remove these barriers that’s restricting us.”

SIC deputy leader Billy Fox, meanwhile, expressed his personal gratitude to the staff members of Shetland Telecom.

The increase in broadband speed at his Quarff home – from 0.5Mbps to 55Mbps – “wouldn’t have happened without Shetland Telecom”, he noted with a smile.

In October last year, up to 4,000 households and businesses in Lerwick, Quarff and Sumburgh were given access to broadband speeds of up to 80Mbps as part of a £146 million project between BT and HIE to improve connections in rural Scotland.