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Digital forum hears lack of broadband and mobile access is ‘killing’ remote communities

Robert Thorburn of BT addressing the digital forum meeting in Skeld on Saturday, as O2's Paul James and HIE's Stuart Robertson look on.

FOR YEARS islanders have been protesting over a lack of high-speed broadband and patchy mobile phone coverage. Neil Riddell went along to Saturday’s Northern Isles digital forum meeting in Skeld Hall to hear of a mixed picture – 4G is on its way for those who already have phone signal, but achieving “superfast” broadband access for all by 2021 is going to prove highly challenging in remote parts of Shetland.

“I WORKED in the health service for 30 years and, if we dealt with the most difficult patients last, by the time we got to them they were dead.”

With those words a retired NHS stalwart neatly encapsulated the frustration some of Shetland’s remotest communities face in getting anywhere near the front of the queue for improvements to broadband and mobile phone signals.

She was speaking during the latest digital forum meeting – organised by Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael and Shetland MSP Tavish Scott – in Skeld Hall this weekend.

While BT, HIE and the Scottish Government have been trumpeting their £146 million scheme to bring superfast broadband to the Highlands and Islands, Skeld and Raewick – along with other substantial pockets of the isles’ rural hinterland, including the North Isles – have missed out entirely.

Representatives of BT, HIE and O2 made the journey west on Saturday morning where over 50 people were gathered to discuss the lie of the land.

Taking the visitors out west was a shrewd move. If nothing else, it allowed Carmichael to kick off the meeting by saying he’d ordinarily ask everyone to put their mobiles on silent, but in Skeld that’s “not necessary at the moment”.

Anger was palpable at internet speeds scarcely any better than most enjoyed in the early 2000s and non-existent mobile coverage – digital shortcomings that do more than anything to hold back the rural economy.

One mother with three teenage daughters spoke of 90-minute round trips to Lerwick in the hope of a computer being available in the library. Proper digital access is imperative for her kids both socially and academically.

“The internet access we receive is appalling,” she said. “Mobile phones don’t work on a daily basis. Our children are severely disadvantaged in education. It is appalling that we are paying the same amount of money as somebody in Birmingham and London. Why are we paying the same when we’re getting a third rate service?”

No answer to that pertinent question was forthcoming.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Following mobile operator EE’s announcement that it would bring 4G mobile signal to Shetland as part of the contract to provide an emergency services network, O2’s head of public affairs Paul James said his company and Vodafone had at long last agreed to share masts.

The operators say 4G signal in areas that already have mobile coverage should be in place “in the next six to 12 months”. Power generation will be installed in some of the more remote sites to improve backup.

MP Alistair Carmichael says discussions need to take place within Shetland about what its digital priorities need to be.

Between them, Vodafone and O2 have 16 Shetland sites and they will introduce a further two in Lerwick and Sullom Voe. But, questioned by Carmichael, James confirmed that would not help areas without signal at present.

Such locales are simply “very uneconomic” and “there probably needs to be a discussion post-2017 about where not-spots exist and what needs to be done,” he said.

Another audience member brandished a map highlighting 20 mast sites within a single mile’s radius in London – more masts than Shetland has in total.

“The economics in a place like Shetland is very, very challenging,” came James’ response.

In 2011 the UK government launched a £150 million fund to eliminate “not-spots”, but backed out of it earlier this year having set up a piffling 15 masts. James pointed out the government also banked the £2 billion mobile phone operators spend buying up 4G licences when “they could’ve allocated £200 million to a not-spots programme”.

Vodafone – with local troubles in the shape of a repeatedly malfunctioning signal in the North Mainland along with, nationally, a botched IT programme and an increasingly dismal customer service reputation – was conspicuous by its absence at Saturday’s forum.

On the broadband front, BT’s Robert Thorburn said the upgrade to “superfast” broadband had reached 69 per cent of Shetland premises. The target in this phase is 76 per cent.

Delving deeper into the statistics, however, the ThinkBroadband website showed only 54 per cent of premises enjoy speeds greater than 24mbps and only 52 per cent enjoy 30mbps (the latest definition of “superfast”).

Over five per cent of properties – many in the North Isles – are lumbered with access to woefully inadequate speeds of less than 2mbps.

Sandness has been added to the list of exchange areas to be upgraded come the end of 2017. Cabinets have now been “stood” in various areas including Bigton, Skellister and Whalsay, with Thorbun hoping the latter will be connected before this year is out.

An Audit Scotland report last week said progress was being made on broadband, but noted parts of rural Scotland continue to lag behind.

HIE’s Stuart Robertson said he considered it a “fairly good report” (plenty of politicians disagree) and it was no surprise island areas were “in percentage terms going to get the lowest coverage”.

“That has been the case from the very beginning of the project,” he said. “They had to start from a standing start, from zero.”

For the Scottish Government’s highly ambitious target of 100 per cent access to superfast broadband by 2021 to be met, the “lack of fibre backhaul particularly to the smaller island communities [is] one of the things we’re going to have to overcome”, Robertson added.

MSP Scott interjected to say everyone in Shetland needed to get together and determine what it is looking for.

Surprise has been expressed in some quarters that BT has been able to get away with using funding for parts of Inverness and towns as large as Lerwick, which may well have been economic for them to invest in without public money.

“The most difficult areas are the areas we should use public money to get to,” Scott said. “We’re dealing with people who have not got any coverage at all. Future government money must find a way to deal with that.”

Calls were made to abandon a “top-down” approach where government allocates a given sum of money because it “makes a good headline”.

Others questioned why a public or private company similar to the National Grid hadn’t been formed to provide broadband and mobile infrastructure – which seem to be a natural monopoly – rather than leaving it to each individual company to provide patchwork access.

Carmichael said the position of BT subsidiary Openreach, which owns telephone cables connecting premises to the national network, had been “under fairly close scrutiny for some time now”.

Regulator Ofcom has given them “a final chance” to demonstrate it can use the existing network, which it owns “largely for historic reasons”, in a way that provides access to other operators.

Carmichael himself feels we’ve got “beyond the point where that model can work”.

There was much talk of whether communities that don’t want to wait years and years for improvements might come up with their own schemes. Thorburn said BT would welcome any proposals.

Others dubbed it “a disgrace” that small settlements such as Skeld and Reawick should be expected to cough up funding themselves.

Several audience members noted the absence of digital technology was “driving people away” from remote areas, stifling opportunities for small businesses, depleting school numbers and ultimately maybe “killing off” long-standing rural communities.

Carmichael closed proceedings by thanking everyone – including the hall committee for their excellent homebakes – for coming along.

He said it was important to stop looking at mobile phone signal and fibre broadband in silos, and take a more holistic approach.

“Every turn of the wheel we’re playing catch-up,” he added. “We need to look not at what’s adequate at the moment but what’s going to be good in 10-20 years’ time.

“It is worth looking at spending a bit of our own money or bringing in money from elsewhere because it could give us an advantage.”

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