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More broadband upgrades in the pipeline

Stuart Robertson.

A FEW pockets of the Shetland mainland are to benefit from much improved broadband speeds in the coming months – but the North Isles face a longer wait before moving into the modern digital era.

New cabinets are to be installed in areas including Gott, Weisdale, Sandness, Gulberwick, South Whiteness and Skeld as a joint project between Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and BT’s Openreach draws to a close in the next 12 months.

But those in the North Isles and other remote islands are unlikely to see any improvement until the new R100 contract, which aims to provide superfast speeds of 30Mbps to every home and business in Scotland by 2021.

HIE digital director Stuart Robertson said 9,500 premises in Shetland – around 75 per cent – now had access to “superfast” speeds. Almost half have made use of that opportunity, with the Western Isles the only other area in the region with a higher take-up.

“Although our contract with BT has been running for some years, we still have some funding left over so the building in Shetland will continue through 2018 and probably into early 2019,” Robertson said.

“There will be a number of additional cabinets put in place. We already know there will be some in places like Gott and Weisdale, Sandness is still to come, but we’re at a late stage in planning to go to some of the places where people – over the last few digital forums – have said coverage is poor, and we’re trying to cater for those areas.

“Places like the south of Gulberwick, south Whiteness, Skeld area, we’ll do our best to cover those before our programme finishes, which will be round about early 2019.”

He acknowledged there was huge frustration in the North Isles at enduring speeds which are hopelessly inadequate for modern life, but said those areas would have to wait for the government’s new contract.

“Although we’ve heard loud and clear at many past digital forums about Yell and Unst, we don’t have enough funding left in our programme, nor do we have the time for the planning and development to be doing new subsea cables.

“Looking forward to R100, I’m sure these areas will be picked up in that project, but unfortunately we can’t do that in the next 12 months.”

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, who hosted the latest digital forum meeting at Islesburgh on Friday morning, welcomed the imminent improvements for around 60 homes in South Whiteness and at the south end of Gulberwick who are “receiving pretty well no service at all at the moment”.

“The bigger issues are still our remote areas from Fair Isle all the way to the north of Unst, and those will be part of the R100 process, delivering broadband to 100 per cent of houses and businesses.

“I still think it’s a tall order against a deadline of 2021, but at least that deadline’s there and that will drive that process.”

Duncan Nisbet of the Scottish Government’s R100 programme said the last contract, worth around £275 million, had taken the proportion of premises in Scotland with superfast broadband from just over 60 per cent to just over 90 per cent.

The new contract will have funding of £600 million to reach the remaining nine per cent but “that last bit is going to be so expensive to address because it is the real hardest-to-reach, most remote places that we’ve got left”.

Nisbet said he would be “extremely disappointed if the initial procurement doesn’t deliver fibre in the islands”. While he was “less confident it will deliver 30Mbps to every premise in Yell and Unst” straight away, once fibre is in place the government will intervene further to ensure everyone is brought up to speed.

Robertson interjected that R100 would also be covering a lot of premises that are “relatively straightforward”, while the budget for the north of Scotland was 2.5 times more than the Highlands and Islands received last time around.

“A lot of the most remote parts will be expensive, but that’s a heck of a lot more budget than we had first time around,” he noted..

The forum heard of various shorter term technological fixes including the fitting of an external antenna for those in any area that has 4G mobile signal but no landline broadband coverage.

BT’s head of policy and public affairs Mark Dames said there was an installation charge of £100, with a monthly charge of between £30 and £60 giving customers up to 200GB of data.

“It’s a very new service and it’s priced very competitively,” he said.

Twenty of the 23 masts being put into Shetland by EE as part of its emergency services contract have now been installed – though only some are active at this stage.

Scott said: “I don’t think we know yet that the EE contract does provide mobile phone coverage widely across Shetland, because all the masts aren’t yet operational.

“Another issue is some of the masts are just not in the right place. They’re not covering the whole of Aith, they’re not covering the whole of Walls, and it does seem odd. After all, the contract for the emergency services has to be the whole country.”

One resident from Muckle Roe questioned why he should be paying a broadband provider the same as someone who receives 30Mbps if he is only getting a tiny fraction of that, likening it to “going to the supermarket and buying a loaf of bread but only getting a small square of one slice”.

Businessman Tony Erwood from Vidlin said he was “a bit frustrated” not only by the 6-7Mbps download speed he receives but an upload speed of just 0.6Mbps which is hopeless if he wants to send files of 1GB.

“In the nebulous future, what are we going to get? Something that delivers sensible upload speeds?”