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Digital divide set to get worse

THE DIGITAL divide between the isles and the rest of the UK will continue to widen unless there is major investment, councillors heard on Thursday.

Shetland Islands Council tasked Scottish network consultancy firm FarrPoint to concoct a strategic case for their role in developing digital connectivity in the isles.

In a presentation to the SIC’s development committee the company’s Stuart Rowell identified a “failure in terms of supply and demand” and added that investment was needed to help rural communities suffering from a lack in broadband provision.

He added that there was “no evidence to suggest that the mobile operators will invest in upgrading the infrastructure in Shetland in the near future”.

They recommend that the SIC “develop a business case for intervention” when it comes to digital connectivity.

The Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband project is being rolled out in the isles in conjunction with Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Last year 4,000 households in Lerwick, Quarff and Sumburgh became the first in Shetland to be offered getting connected to broadband speeds of up to 80 Mbps.

Superfast broadband coverage was extended to a further 1,400 customers in Scalloway, Sandwick, Cunningsburgh and Sumburgh earlier this year.

The scheme is expected to eventually reach around 85 per cent of households across the Highlands and Islands and 76 per cent in Shetland.

During the development committee meeting, Rowell noted that Vodafone is developing 5G mobile internet technology on the mainland – the most of Shetland, however, can’t even access 3G.

Lerwick South councillor Amanda Westlake raised concerns that Shetland’s broadband provision could hamper efforts to attract businesses to the isles.

Council leader Gary Robinson meanwhile added that “frank discussions” were had with major network operators such as BT, Vodafone and EE at the Convention of the Highlands and Islands in Elgin on Monday.

He alluded to the possibility of public mobile users being able in the future to tap into a Scotland-wide 4G system that could be used by the emergency services.

Committee chairman Theo Smith raised concerns over the emergence of providing healthcare through telecommunication technology. “Without a better system it’s going nowhere,” he said.

The committee agreed to take the next steps towards building a full business case for digital connectivity intervention by the council.

BT meanwhile are publicly encouraging rural communities not part of any broadband upgrade plan to get in touch.

Chief executive Gavin Patterson said: “We’ve just announced our commitment to work with communities to find a fibre solution and have set up a community fibre partnership scheme to enable this.

Local communities are asked to get in touch with BT via this link: www.openreach.co.uk/communityfibre

This latest broadband news comes after Labour MEP Catherine Stihler visited Shetland in September to learn about the isles’ digital connectivity.

She said that Shetland Telecom, which was set up in 2009 to roll out fibre optic cables across the isles and now with a £450,000 annual turnover from direct sales, could be used as a model for other regions in Europe.