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Time to bring isles into 21st century

SIC leader Gary Robinson wants to make the case to government for Shetland Telecom to deliver the necessary digital infrastructure to drag Shetland into the 21st century.

SIC LEADER Gary Robinson is pushing for the council to take bolder action to improve broadband and mobile infrastructure in the islands amid yet more frustration at telecoms giant BT.

Speaking during this week’s development committee meeting, Robinson was again heavily critical of Digital Scotland’s “superfast” project, being delivered by HIE and BT, which should see around three quarters of isles households enjoy faster broadband speeds.

Politicians at Westminster and Holyrood have been making grand promises in recent weeks about rolling out faster broadband across the country over the next five years.

According to SIC development director Neil Grant, those “high level political interjections” made it difficult for him to put together a “fully evidenced business case” for the council to intervene in improving digital connectivity because “the ground shifts too quickly around me”.

Grant said the issue of getting proper 4G mobile coverage in Shetland in particular was “a bit of a conundrum”.

Councillors were, nonetheless, disappointed with his report on the subject and proceeded to rewrite several of its recommendations.

A detailed lobbying strategy is to be drawn up by mid August, while Scottish rural economy minister Fergus Ewing will be invited to the islands to learn about the challenges of improving broadband and mobile phone coverage in Shetland. That follows a similar call from MSP Tavish Scott last week. 

One of the most significant steps agreed was tasking officials with putting together a plan to bring the fibre network to Unst and Yell. That process will include looking at whether some of the cost can be shared with SSE, which is planning to lay power grid connections across the Bluemull and Yell sounds.

Gary Robinson: "“Should we not be lobbying and saying we’ve got a vehicle here that the Scottish Government could invest in that will deliver what’s required?”

North Isles councillor Robert Henderson was “delighted” with that news, but pointed out some houses are six or seven miles from exchange points and were struggling with speeds of just quarter of a megabyte per second (mbps).

Bringing fibre to cabinets would probably do little to improve that, and he suggested more extensive fibre cabling within Unst and Yell might be necessary.

Once the details are put together, the SIC will present its plan for the North Isles to the government. If it doesn’t fit with any national programmes, at that stage the council could look at doing the work itself.

Last month an HIE spokeswoman told Shetland News 6,500 premises in the islands had been “drawn into the fibre network” as part of the Digital Scotland project, with the slow pace of change a continual source of frustration for local politicians.

So far HIE believes around 58 per cent of premises are enabled for fibre broadband and around 45 per cent have access to 24mbps speeds or more. The official definition of “superfast” broadband is a minimum of 30mbps.

Robinson said: “It’s not as fast as was promised, and it’s not superfast. What appears to be happening is BT are referring to what they call fibre-based broadband – which could be anything, frankly, that’s got a bit of fibre in it somewhere.”

He pointed out the council had state aid approval to intervene and should make clear to government that the SIC-owned Shetland Telecom is prepared to deliver the technology directly to areas not reached by national schemes.

“Should we not be lobbying and saying we’ve got a vehicle here that the Scottish Government could invest in that will deliver what’s required?” he asked.

Robinson also pointed out the significant savings – yet to be quantified by officials – from schools, offices and other council-run buildings using its own network rather than paying an operator for the privilege.

Should Shetland Telecom go down the route of laying so-called “dark fibre”, he questioned whether the local authority might end up “getting charged by an operator for the use of something that we’ve provided in the first place”.

“We need to be a lot firmer with this,” he added, saying BT was getting away with duplicating the existing council-laid fibre network with “some lame excuse about our cable being six inches below the road and below their standards”.

Development committee chairman Alastair Cooper acknowledged Grant’s report “didn’t clarify the intentions for the members as well as it might have done”.

“Certainly I wasn’t comfortable writing recommendations on the hoof – you’re never sure if you make the right decision – but it was a very clear direction from members,” he said.

“We’ll have a discussion with Fergus Ewing and see if we can bring Shetland into the twenty first century.”

Mossbank resident Cooper said he and his wife had put up with speeds of a fraction of 1mbps until the last few weeks. Now their home has been upgraded they are enjoying internet access nearly 100 times as fast and “it’s like light and dark”.

“It’s made a hell of a difference. Our ethos is to be for economic development, and if you take Unst, for example, as a fragile community trying to do a lot of things, whatever we could do to make it easier for them with high speed connectivity would help the community to do more for themselves.”

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