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Community / ‘Internet is a basic right’ say Clousta residents faced with a £725,000 bill to get connected

Clousta is a remote hamlet in Shetland's westside. Photo: Richard Webb

RESIDENTS of Clousta have been horrified after being expected to fork out £725,000 to BT to achieve a reliable internet connection in the area.

When split between the area’s 15 homes that comes to nearly £50,000 per property.

The current internet connection in Clousta, in the west mainland, is unreliable and can randomly fail, leaving residents with no access online for long periods of time, cutting residents off from the digital world.

Allen Duncan has been building an energy positive house in Clousta, one of only six in the UK, that will have Passivhaus Plus certification.

The certification means the house produces as much energy as it uses via renewable energy sources like solar panels and must produce enough energy for the house to operate all year round. He is set to move in at the start of 2023.

However, the house requires constant connection to the internet to monitor the heat pumps and solar panels, and in Clousta that is not possible because of the poor broadband connection all residents experience there.

Duncan said: “It was a total shock when it came to £725,000, just to have a reliable internet connection which people would assume is a basic right in the 21st century.

“The idea that to get my house to ‘join the world’ I must pay that amount of money is absolutely horrific.”

He also highlighted how the internet has been integrated into our daily lives, whether it’s the ability to work remotely, or accessing essential online banking or healthcare services.

The Scottish Government’s multi-million pound R100 programme, designed to bring superfast broadband to every household and business in Scotland, is being currently rolled out across the islands.

However, 17 per cent or one sixth of Shetland households, including Clousta, will not benefit from the investment and as a result will be lacking behind even further.

For these properties a voucher scheme worth up to £5,000 is in place, for alternative technology like wireless or satellite technology.

Shetland Islands Council has produced an online  map showing the many properties being left behind by R100.  https://maphub.net/cloudnet/R100-Shetland

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart has now written to the Scottish Government demanding action.

“Islanders are limited in a modern world by the digital constraints that the Scottish Government is leaving us with. The lack of connectivity affects residents’ ability to complete everyday online tasks like banking, schoolwork and online classes, running a business from home or simply staying connected to the digital world we live in,” she said.

Divided between the 15 residents in the community, the cost comes to approximately £48,000 per household, an amount Wishart called “clearly unaffordable”.

Wishart added: “If the Scottish Government is serious about improving lives and encouraging economic growth in rural areas and islands like Shetland, they need to get serious about broadband rollout leaving no community behind.”

In 2018, the UK Government developed a Universal Service Obligation scheme to allow all eligible premises in the UK the legal right to have a decent broadband connection with an affordable monthly charge. BT is the designated universal service provider named by the government.

If the total cost for work exceeds £3,400, which is BT’s contribution, the expectation falls on local residents to pay the additional costs.

A BT spokesperson said: “The Universal Service Obligation (USO) scheme obliges BT to provide a quote for the cost of delivering a broadband solution to customers. Quotes reflect the physical cost of delivering that solution and sometimes, as a result, can be unavoidably high.”

BT also added that due to the high costs involved, it does not consider the USO a reasonable solution for rural communities in the hardest to reach places in the UK.

BT sent Duncan a detailed email breaking down the costs, which included a £37,400 deduction in line with the USO scheme.

This breakdown showed an estimate of £570,763.20 expected to be spent on civil engineering to provide Clousta with a reliable broadband connection.

This covers the costs related to laying cables in the area by digging up roads and pavements or laying cables on private land.

There was an additional cabling fee of £65,595.15 to cover labour costs for laying the cables from the local internet exchange in Bixter, out to Clousta.

Janet Davidge, who owns Westside Pine and has lived in Clousta for 32 years, said: “I was in disbelief when I got the letter. It’s ridiculous today that we would be excluded from what is essentially a basic right.

“Internet is not a luxury anymore. It’s needed in daily life and here in Clousta, we don’t have that.”

Wishart feels the blame lies with the Scottish Government.

She said: “The Scottish Government like to point to the Broadband Voucher Scheme to argue they are meeting their promises under the R100 Programme, but their own figures show that there have only been four applications out of more than 1,800 households in Shetland that the main programme excluded.”

The Liberal Democrat MSP added: “The original deadline the SNP set itself at the start of the last parliament has long since passed and I will continue to raise constituency digital connectivity issues for as long as they arise.”

Clousta is, of course, not the only place in Shetland that is suffering from poor broadband connection.

Public money has been spent on installing a subsea cable allowing Whalsay to access super-fast fibre broadband. But residents in Isbister, Nisthouse, and Skaw still will not be able to access it.