Hard cash needed to end patchy broadband as Northern Isles rank third poorest in Britain

Marvin Smith of Shetland Telecom: "really somebody somewhere has to come up with a solution to get this done, and the only way it’s going to be done is to throw proper money at it."
Marvin Smith of Shetland telecom. Photo: Shetland News

THE FACT that Orkney and Shetland ranks as the third worst parliamentary constituency in Britain for broadband will come as little surprise to islanders – but there is a clamour locally to see hard cash on the table to ensure everyone enjoys access to fast internet speeds.

A UK parliamentary committee found that with an estimated 61.7 per cent of households not having access to 10 megabits per second (Mbps), the Northern Isles were joint third bottom alongside Argyll and Bute. Only the Western Isles and Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituencies fared worse.


The government has committed to introducing a universal service obligation (USO) for broadband throughout the UK, while BT has suggested it will spend up to £600 million to ensure higher speeds for the rural premises yet to have been upgraded.

A Scottish Government announcement that it would ensure 100 per cent coverage by the end of this parliament in 2021 – a project now known as “R100” promising speeds of 30Mbps – took many by surprise and it has yet to spell out how that pledge will be realised.


Marvin Smith of Shetland Telecom, the organisation set up by Shetland Islands Council after it became exasperated with BT’s dismal record in upgrading technology in these parts, says everyone is now waiting to hear how these promises will be kept.

He said the parliamentary committee’s findings were “not at all” surprising given that, when a BDUK project for superfast broadband began, Shetland was starting from “one of the worst positions”.

“The target for most of the rest of the UK was 90 per cent of houses connected,” Smith said. “Our target was only ever going to be 75 per cent, and we’ve reached something like 55-56 per cent [access to] superfast broadband.”


The parliamentary study’s figures are lower because not everyone will take up superfast broadband once access is provided.

“Regardless of what all the surveys say, we are in a poor situation when it comes to broadband in some areas. In other areas we have it as good as anywhere else,” he said.

West Burrafirth was upgraded four years ago thanks to a combination of Shetland Broadband and Shetland Telecom, but many other remote areas are still grappling with unacceptably slow speeds. Photo: Shetland Broadband.

“It shows Shetland is not in a position it wants to be in. It’s a lot of news and a lot of different surveys, but really somebody somewhere has to come up with a solution to get this done, and the only way it’s going to be done is to throw proper money at it.

“The technology that they prescribe to use it, copper wires to be cabinet, the speed depends on your distance, so you knew that this was going to be the situation. The thing that could sort it out is the Scottish Government’s R100 programme.”

In theory that could render BT’s weekend statement largely irrelevant in Scotland. It has pledged to bring a minimum speed of 10Mbps – fast enough to stream TV/film, make video calls and browse the internet – to every home and business.

That would be done via the Openreach network using fibre-optic cables and copper lines along with fixed wireless systems, satellite and potentially mobile 4G technology.


Smith said: “They have never done fixed wireless before, they’ve done satellite to a very limited degree – it’s probably the 4G network they’ll try and use as far as possible.”

Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to create a universal service obligation with 10Mbps “didn’t seem to be particularly well thought through, it just seemed to be this is what they wanted, but there didn’t seem to be any money for it. Under current circumstances it is incredibly expensive to get to remote and rural areas with that sort of connectivity.”