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Scepticism over BT’s ‘superfast’ broadband rollout

THE EFFORTS of BT and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to provide access to “superfast” broadband to households and firms in Shetland have attracted more stinging criticism.

HIE announced this week that coverage was “fast approaching half of the total number of islands premises”, with more than 5,500 homes and businesses now having access to its upgraded “high-speed fibre” broadband network.

But Shetland Telecom and Shetland Broadband both pointed out that, while BT is targeting connecting 76 per cent of properties by the end of 2016, that does not necessarily mean those properties will “actually be able to get ‘superfast’ services”.

BT is increasing the number of fibre-connected broadband cabinets in towns and villages throughout the islands. But the use of copper cables rather than fibre between those cabinets and individual properties means those not living close to a cabinet may not be able to enjoy “superfast” speeds.

Shetland Broadband’s Ian Brown – also chairman of the local federation of small businesses branch – said it was “totally legal, but morally wrong, to be describing this project as ‘fibre’. There is hardly any fibre to the premises.”

He continued: “A growing number of folk are discovering that they are too far from the exchange to get reasonable speeds from conventional exchange-based services and now are too far from a cabinet to obtain superfast services.

“The actual throughput has been disappointing at peak times. This problem has been getting steadily worse. It is a BT-acknowledged problem which they are working on – when will it be fixed? We wait impatiently.

“Meanwhile, whilst acknowledging there is a problem, they continue to enable more cabinets, which appears to be making the problem worse. Until they get their network fixed with enough capacity they should be putting further deployment on hold.”

Brown added: “I am surprised that HIE, which has spent large sums of public money with BT, are not taking a tougher line on this. I wonder if they have the same capacity problem in Inverness?”

Marvin Smith of Shetland Telecom, set up by Shetland Islands Council to improve the isles network after years of inertia from BT, described the project’s “significant progress” as “very much welcome”.

But he said there “still remains the question of the sizeable percentage of Shetland customers who will not benefit from the project”, with the target for the islands “among the lowest in the UK”.

“Even if all the intended areas are upgraded, Shetland will still be one of the poorest served areas in the UK,” Smith said.

“At the moment the target is 76 per cent NGA [next generation access] which means that 76 per cent will be connected to a BT cabinet which is capable of delivering ‘superfast’ speeds. It does not mean that 76 per cent of Shetland will actually be able to get ‘superfast’ services.

“Unfortunately there are no fibre optic cables being used between the cabinets and the houses, only copper, so the achievable speed will deteriorate over distance. This becomes a bigger issue the more rural the area is because there are less cabinets servicing fewer customers over a larger geographic area.

“We very much want to assist BT to do as many upgrades as they can, but there is going to have to be a significant amount of work done through organisations such as Community Broadband Scotland if everybody is to benefit from better broadband.”

HIE said the first homes and businesses in Cunningsburgh, Hamnavoe, Lerwick, Sandwick, Scalloway, Sumburgh and Quarff could now order “superfast” broadband – with around 1,300 homes and businesses already having done so.

It said the rollout continued in many of those places, while work has already started to connect others including Brae, Bressay, Gott, Skellister, Sullom Voe, Vidlin, Voe, Walls and Weisdale – with more areas to follow in 2016.

BT’s work is part of a £146 million project being led by HIE in a partnership “designed to extend superfast services to areas which would not have been reached by the commercial market”.

HIE’s digital director Stuart Robertson said people in “live” areas could enter their phone number on an interactive checker on its website.

“If fibre services are available you do have to order – you aren’t just upgraded,” Robertson said. “This is great news for the growing numbers of people who can access the new services. We’ve still got a big job to do in the next year or so to extend this coverage to more than seven out of 10 of Shetland premises.”

He said the job was an “engineering challenge” involving use of the “latest fibre technologies”. In Bressay, for example, it is working on an approach called “wireless to the cabinet” which involves installing a mast as part of the network linking Bressay to the Shetland mainland – which will also be used in Whalsay.

Robertson added: “While we are working on the current roll-out, we haven’t forgotten the harder to reach areas. We are already looking at how additional funding will help us reach further.”

BT programme manager Robert Thorburn said “significant progress” had been made and the company was committed to working with HIE, Community Broadband Scotland and the SIC “to determine what the true art of the possible could be as we push the boundaries and embrace new emerging technologies from the mainstream network”.

Brown said you would need to be “no more than about 200 metres away” from a cabinet to receive top speeds. At one kilometre away you could still get around 35-40Mbps speeds but “beyond that it goes down rapidly towards 2km where it is unlikely to provide any service”.

A BT spokesman acknowledged: “Thanks to the laws of physics, speed drops the further premises are from the cabinet which means we are delivering a range of speeds across the islands”, but the “majority of people will experience an uplift in their speed if they opt for fibre”.

Brown said he blamed national politicians such as UK culture and digital economy minister Ed Vaizey for commissioning a scheme that is “not designed to bring superfast, or indeed any broadband, everywhere”.

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