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MP: communications problem highlights isles’ ‘fragile’ links

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael MP.
Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael.

NORTHERN Isles MP Alistair Carmichael says the phone and internet problems experienced by some in Shetland following maintenance on a subsea cable shows how “fragile” the islands’ links are.

Some users, such as Shetland Islands Council, started to suffer problems on Thursday afternoon as a knock-on effect of work which is being carried out on the Shefa-2 undersea cable between Orkney and Shetland.

Speaking after he chaired the latest Northern Isles digital forum in Lerwick on Friday, Carmichael said the incident highlighted the “lack of resilience that we currently have, and just how vulnerable we are as a consequence of that”.

The cable is owned by Shefa, which is a subsidiary of Faroese Telecom, and the undersea cable in question links Faroe, Shetland and Orkney to the Scottish mainland.

“The Faroese cable is great because frankly if we didn’t have that then we wouldn’t have much at all, but it just shows that when it comes to digital connectivity, we’ve got a long way to go before we actually have the resilience of service that people take for granted in other parts of the country,” Carmichael said.

The digital forum heard from BT’s head of policy and public affairs Mark Dames, who said that eight out of 34 exchanges in Shetland have so far been fully upgraded to allow for broadband speeds up to 24Mbit/s.

These are Bixter, Cunningsburgh, Gott, Hamnavoe, Lerwick, Sandwick, Scalloway and Sumburgh.

However, as the data still has to travel along copper wires to reach people’s homes, those far away from a cabinet are still in danger of receiving slow speeds.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s digital director Stuart Robertson said that 10,140 homes and businesses in Shetland are now connected to fibre broadband.

The Scottish Government’s Reaching 100 scheme, meanwhile, is set to kick off in 2019 in a bid to bring super fast broadband to every home and business in the country by 2021.

Super fast broadband is defined by the government as at least 30Mbit/s.

Duncan Nisbet, stakeholder engagement director for the Reaching 100 programme, added that 74.4 per cent of properties in Shetland have access to super fast broadband at the moment.

Carmichael added after the meeting that the work still to be done reflects the brittle nature of Shetland’s connectivity.

“The lesson of today’s forum is that yeah, we’ve made significant progress, but even the progress we’ve made, it’s still very fragile,” he said.