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Council / SIC to map out steps to deliver high speed broadband to all

A STUDY is to be commissioned in an effort to give Shetland Islands Council a clearer picture on how superfast broadband could be extended throughout the isles.

It comes after council leadership confirmed earlier in the summer their intention to explore the cost of going it alone to provide high speed internet to all homes in Shetland.

This was a result of frustration with the Scottish Government R100 scheme designed to bring connectivity to everyone in the country.

Acting manager of economic development Thomas Coutts told a meeting of the full council on Wednesday that a legal challenge to the Scottish Government awarding the northern contract for the R100 scheme has now been resolved.

Coutts, however, said it appears unlikely that the contract will be awarded before early 2021.

A report presented to members said the study will map out the “practical steps required to deliver superfast connectivity to those properties in Shetland which do not currently benefit from high speed data links”.

It will focus on:

  • Network planning to extend superfast connectivity to those areas of Shetland not currently benefitting from high speed data connections;
  • Assessment of the options to provide connectivity solutions to those areas where geography and distance create physical challenges, particularly the outer islands;
  • Engagement with UK and Scottish Governments, and with providers in the telecoms industry, to determine options to realise plans for extending superfast connectivity.

In August the Scottish Government launched a voucher scheme offering up to £5,000 in grant funding to households and businesses outside the reach of the R100 programme that promised to connect everyone to superfast broadband by the end of 2021.

Interim vouchers of up to £400 are also being made available for premises where superfast broadband is planned for after the end of 2021 – with an additional £250 for those in the hardest-to-reach areas.

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During Wednesday’s meeting stressed the need for better connectivity across the isles – an issue which has been a bug-bear for islanders for some time.

Councillor George Smith questioned if the study could be designated for a graduate rather than an outside agency.

“I don’t want this to be overcomplicated,” he later said.

“I actually think that we have a huge amount of information, a huge amount of expertise already within the council.”

Coutts said part of the thinking was to look at an external provider with “relevent contacts with industry and government” in the area.

Council leader Steven Coutts, meanwhile, said he felt there were “mixed messages” with the schemes like the voucher project – what he called a “sticky plaster approach”.

“I think one of the challenges is the sheer confusion that’s out there in the community,” he said.

“I think there needs to be a coordinated strategic approach taken to connectivity across Shetland.”

He added that it was of “critical importance to Shetland” to get a solution.

Marvin Smith of Shetland Telecom, an organisation set up by the SIC to develop telecommunications in the isles, agreed with the possible benefits of a longer-term approach.

Development committee chairman Alastair Cooper also stressed that the report should be conducted quickly.

Thomas Coutts said he hoped the study could come back in three to six months.

“I think the Shetland community needs to know very quickly what the options are,” Cooper replied.

“I’m particularly concerned that I think there’s probably money available from various sources, which the quicker we get into it, the quicker we have a chance of getting the money.”

He stressed that high speed internet needs to be available to all – including the outlying islands.

Shetland Central member Moraig Lyall highlighted, though, that it was not just the islands lacking in connectivity – with East Burra for instance described as a “problem area”.

This was compounded in recent months with the likes of home schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic.

She also endorsed Smith’s suggestion to have a graduate carry out the project.

“At a recent seminar we were presented with a report from external consultants, which was very admirable in many ways, but I don’t think there was anything in it that couldn’t have been brought together by a group of Shetlanders in half an afternoon.”

Depute leader Emma Macdonald said access to digital connectivity should not be based on where you live.

She said it had been a constant issue at community council and parent council meetings she has attended.

A letter, meanwhile, has been sent to a raft of political representatives and community councils encouraging them to consider the “long-term benefits” of Shetland developing its own high-speed network as far as possible.

The letter was written by Karl Johnson, a public sociology lecturer at Queen Margaret University who was born and raised in Brae.

He believes that new income streams such as the Viking Energy community benefit fund, Crown Estate Scotland assets and the government islands deal could be explored when exploring how to develop connectivity.

“Shetland’s own – perhaps community-owned – superfast internet infrastructure would support innovative developments and long-term planning in other areas of business, education, health and social welfare, industry and engineering, arts and culture, tourism, and encourage population regrowth,” he wrote.

Johnson concluded that what is now needed is “collective support, investigation, and pooling of expertise and resources to move on from broken promises, take ownership and initiative locally, and commit to intelligent development for a sustainable and prosperous future in Shetland”.

The letter was sent to all of Shetland’s community councils, SIC representatives, Shetland’s MSP and MP as well as Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the community benefit fund which will receive income from the Viking Energy wind farm project.

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