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Progress on mobile signal welcomed, but fury at BT’s no-show amid broadband troubles

EE's programme director Lynne Toogood. Photo: BBC Radio Orkney.

MOBILE phone operator EE plans to spend over £2.5 million this year on upgrading and building 20 new masts to improve 4G signal across the islands, a meeting of the Northern Isles Digital Forum heard on Saturday.

But, while EE’s programme director Lynne Toogood’s message and willingness to engage with islanders went down well, there was yet more anger and frustration with telecoms giant BT – which failed to appear at the meeting without explanation.

Residents in outlying parts of Shetland, most notably including the North Isles and pockets of the North Mainland, remain deeply frustrated as their communities miss out on superfast broadband upgrades.

EE won an emergency services network contract from the Home Office last year and Toogood said it was proposing 20 new 2G and 4G sites across the islands including nine new masts in the North Isles, three in the North Mainland, two in the South Mainland, one on the West Side and four in the Central Mainland.

Toogood, whose frank approach and preparedness to listen to criticism impressed many attendees, said she accepted that coverage was still “pants” in many remote and rural areas.

“The commitment that EE are showing Shetland involves an investment of well over £2.5 million this year alone, just upgrading and building new masts.”

She is convinced that adding 20 new masts will “allow coverage where no other network will take it”.

BT came under fire for its failure to attend to answer many people's questions about their sub-standard broadband service.

“Yes, we have challenges,” Toogood said. “We all know Unst is a challenge, but we are committed to working with other agencies who are attempting to get better communications to Unst, to work together and collaborate to get the best service we can.” 

She also said the company is going to speak to SSE, which is laying electricity cables across the Yell and Bluemull sounds this summer. Several people pointed out that would provide an ideal opportunity for mobile and broadband operators to also look at upgrading to things like fibre technology.

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said the masts would “make an enormous difference” and did allow other operators to use those masts.

“What it has not done in the past, though, is allowed other operators to have a say in where the masts are positioned and how tall they are,” he told Shetland News. “That’s where we’ve been trying to keep the pressure on EE.

“I thought she [Toogood] was very good, one of the most effective that we’ve seen for a long time – her openness and willingness to engage was excellent.”

However, he was unimpressed at BT’s no-show, saying he would be seeking an explanation from its Scottish director Brendan Dick who “needs to start giving some answers” on islanders’ continuing discontent with broadband services.

“Somehow or another they seem to have dodged the bullet this time,” Carmichael told the forum, “but we will get them back.”

A BT spokeswoman told Shetland News that “the agenda for this particular session did not require BT attendance and the Digital Forum organisers were aware of that a couple of months ago”.

SIC candidate for the North Isles Ryan Thomson said it was “massively disappointing” that BT had not attended.

He also pointed out that Unst and Yell were “two of the three biggest islands in Shetland geographically, and some of the residents are only receiving speeds of around 0.2Mbps”, which was “hugely disappointing”.

Stuart Robertson of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) gave an update on the BDUK project, now nearing completion, and said that according to the ThinkBroadband website around two thirds of homes could receive 24Mbps or above while 78 per cent of homes and businesses are connected to fibre cabinets.

MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott are seeking an explanation from BT Scotland's Brendan Dick.

Several members of the audience countered that that was “absolute nonsense” in reality.

Even those figures, though, did not make great reading for those living outwith the central mainland. Some 28.4 per cent of residences receive speeds slower than 10Mbps and 3.5 per cent are left to contend with under 2Mbps.

The Scottish Government has committed to providing 100 per cent access to superfast broadband by 2021, but it still has to decide exactly how that ambitious target will be achieved.

Isles MSP Tavish Scott said it was “woeful” that government contracts had excluded the North Isles up until now.

“What I really fear from the latest procurement exercise is they’ll be left out and the solution to reaching 100 per cent of homes across the most rural parts of the country will be satellite, which will be next-to useless,” he said.

He added it was essential to “invest properly in fibre” for the North Isles and that it “seems ludicrous” not to take advantage of SSE laying subsea cables to Yell and Unst.

Residents in the North Mainland – who will feature in a separate story later this week – have been left with no broadband at all after attempting to upgrade to superfast.

Maree Hay of the Northmavine Community Development Company (NCDC) also felt it was “really disappointing” that BT was absent. She had been working with Scott for “probably a year now” on resolving issues that see people in North Roe receiving speeds of between 0 and 0.28Mbps “at best”.

She said folk had been “getting the square root of nowhere” and it was “a real situation, but it’s not being classed as that by BT”.

Robert Thomson felt that Shetland Telecom’s initiative, supported by Shetland Islands Council, deserved more credit than it has got.

He held that up as an example of taking matters into our own hands: “If you have a shovel and you’ve had a good breakfast, you can dig it yourself!” he said. “I think Shetland Islands Council have made a good start and we need to push them to do more.”

Representatives of telecoms regulator Ofcom were also present. Jonathan Ruff said it was clear that 35 per cent of premises not receiving 10Mbps was “obviously unacceptable” as that is defined as “the decent minimum amount that people would need to conduct activities” such as filling out tax forms and applying for state benefits.

He said only the Western Isles (39 per cent) and Orkney (37 per cent) were worse off than Shetland. 

With the R100 project committing to blanket superfast broadband coverage, he said there “might be a role for other technologies” – although he acknowledged satellite broadband is “seen as a poor relation” to fixed technology.

Faroese Telecom has expressed an interest in getting involved in the Highlands and Islands market, and Ofcom said it would be possible for them to approach operators such as EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three with a view to leasing or buying its mobile spectrum.