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Council / SIC chief stresses need for ‘world class’ connectivity as staff work from home

SHETLAND Islands Council (SIC) chief executive Maggie Sandison says there needs to be “world class” connectivity in place to “rebuild our economy to be more resilient to shocks like Covid-19” in the future and support delivery of public services.

SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison pictured in February.SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison. Photo: Shetland News

She said a new emphasis on working from home during the coronavirus crisis “reinforces the need for our governments’ to deliver on their commitments to support full fibre and 5G infrastructure as a priority”.

As part of social distancing measures, council staff – as well as a host of workers across the isles – have been working from home where possible.

But Sandison said the experience for staff working from home is “varied” due to the inconsistent broadband speeds around Shetland.

Where internet speeds are low some workers have been using devices to connect to 4G mobile data, although this poses a problem for people in places lacking in signal.

Sandison said the SIC typically has up to 750 employees accessing a virtual private network (VPN), which “gives an experience much like being in the office”, with more accessing webmail.

“There is no doubt that better connectivity generally improves the experience of home working, particularly around video conferencing and softphone enablement,” she said.

“Our ICT team have been doing a fabulous job to support staff across the council with this massive change in their working arrangements and where people have been struggling they are trying to find solutions together.

“The experience for staff working from home is varied – some of them have excellent connections, some less good, some use mobile broadband. In general they can connect and do most things that they need to, most of the time and they are finding new and flexible ways of working to get round their issues.”

Shetland’s broadband speed recently found itself at the bottom of the list in a new UK study, although its reported 21Mbps average is not experienced by those living in outlying areas.

Marvin Smith of Shetland Telecom, an organisation set up by the SIC to develop telecommunications in the isles, said last week that there have been a “number of government interventions and schemes which have either failed or have only partially helped to take broadband infrastructure in Shetland to levels which many other parts of the country take for granted”.

The Scottish Government’s flagship R100 programme, which aims to bring high speed broadband to all, was recently delayed for two years.

Sandison, meanwhile, said more robust connectivity and infrastructure could help councils deal with the fall-out of crises like Covid-19 in the future.

“Without a doubt, the need to promote working from home for everyone who can as part of the ‘new normal’ for Scotland and the UK reinforces the need for our governments’ to deliver on their commitments to support full fibre and 5G infrastructure as a priority,” she said.

“We need world class connectivity to rebuild our economy to be more resilient to shocks like Covid-19 and support delivery of our critical public services.”

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart also touched on connectivity following a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s new Covid-19 committee last week.

She said any technology which could be used to track and trace the virus, such as an app, should not “exacerbate the digital divide”.

“If we are going rely on technology to track people who’ve encountered the virus we need to ensure the solution works for areas where communications are unreliable or intermittent,” Wishart said.

“We’ve seen shocking statistics on how rural communities could face much higher death rates from Covid-19. Any technological solution needs to be built in such a way that it accounts for the existing digital divide, otherwise it won’t offer people in remote and rural areas the same level of protection.

“Technology too often fails them, and this can’t be the case for any track and trace system. This is something I expect the committee and the government to examine in detail.”