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SIC fast-tracks broadband for North Isles

SHETLAND Islands Council is fast-tracking the provision of superfast broadband to Yell and Unst as plans for a proposed space station on Britain’s most northerly island continue to gather pace.

The council’s development department aims to be in a position to submit a £2 million bid to the UK government’s Local Full Fibre Network Fund by the end of the summer.

This has been identified as the preferred funding method that could, potentially, deliver high speed broadband by 2019. However, an SIC bid to the same fund last year, without the incentive of a space station proposal, was unsuccessful.

SIC head of development Neil Grant said his department was also talking to the Scottish Government about its commitment to connect everybody to superfast broadband by 2021.

Head of the SIC development department Neil Grant. Photo: Shetland News

However, if the current interest from the international space industry in transforming Unst into a space station is turning into tangible business proposals than a target date of 2021 will be too late.

Grant said that should the SIC again not be successful with its bid to access UK government funding then the council may want to consider investing in the infrastructure itself.

“The SIC recognise that a high spec broadband network for Unst and the North Isles is infrastructure that is required, and the council is working through government funding to put this in place,” he said.

“If we are unsuccessful in that process, the council may need to consider whether to make that investment directly based on the economic and social benefits.”

Shetland Islands Council signed a memorandum of understanding last week with Shetland Space Centre and Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest aerospace companies, to create a satellite tracking and communication centre in Unst.

And on Thursday, Shetland Space Centre announced that it has signed an agreement with Bristol based firm B2Space to investigate the feasibility of using Unst as a launch site for the company’s small satellite launcher centred on stratospheric balloons, known as a rockoon.

It is also understood that representatives from other global players have been visiting Shetland this week for talks with the developer and the council.

The prospect of the global space industry coming to Shetland has been described as, potentially, “like the oil in the 1970s” by Frank Strang, the businessman behind Shetland Space Centre Ltd.

Speaking to Shetland News earlier this week, Strang stressed that space activity in the form of downloading information from satellites could be up and running within a relatively short time span of about nine months.

Shetland Space Centre founder Frank Strang.

He said his company had been inundated with expressions of interest from companies operating satellites, as well as academia keen to establish research projects.

If a satellite launch site could be developed at Lamba Ness by 2020, then, according to Strang, Shetland could experience inward investment in the region of between £40 and £50 million.

Grant said that at this time it was not clear to what extent the council could eventually be involved in the venture.

“It is not clear at the moment what the council’s role in this is going to be. The council is working with the various companies, stakeholders and interested parties in terms of working up a plan,” he said.

“However, whatever the council’s position is in that plan, will be subject of decision made by committee.

“In the first instance, whether it is the space industry, aquaculture or the creative industries, we would always proactively engage to help it to happen.”