Community / ‘Perfect storm’ of cable failure was ‘incredibly bad luck’

WHEN islanders woke up on Thursday morning to find neither their mobile phone nor their internet were working, it initially looked as though the islands would be affected by a massive outage lasting two to three days.

Internal connectivity was also largely lost leading to acting police inspector Bruce Peebles calling on people to do things the old-fashioned way and look out for each other.

Major service providers such as Shetland Islands Council and, importantly, the health board, could also not be contacted.

Police deployed some extra patrols and opened the Lerwick station to customer traffic in a bid to reassure islanders that they were on top of the situation, while IT technicians started to understand what actually had happened.

Meanwhile, and to the surprise of many, some connectivity was quickly restored thanks to Faroese Telecom.

When the Faroese owned Shefa-2 cable was damaged south of Shetland around midnight from Wednesday to Thursday by what is believed to have been a fishing boat, Shetland was cut off for a while because the other Shefa-2 cable running north on the seabed between Shetland and Faroe was also out of service after it had been damaged the week before.


Described as a “perfect storm” and “incredibly bad luck” by the council’s IT manager Susan Msalila, it looked indeed as though Shetland would be disconnected for a long time.

But the cable running south was not cut as widely reported in the national media but damaged, meaning that some of the hundred or more fibre strands within the cable were still in working order.

As it became clearer what had happened, technicians from Faroese Telecom were quickly able to re-route some of the services to undamaged fibre, including some of the oil installations linked to Shefa-2, as well as Shetland Telecom’s own local network.

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That is why Shetland News could update its website on Thursday morning but with the caveat that not many local people could actually read it.

Meanwhile, all the traffic carried by BT on the Shefa-2 cable could not be automatically transferred to undamaged fibre because BT does not have an “active fibre service”, but a private lease of some of the Shefa-2 cable’s capacity.

The same applies to Shetland Islands Council. Somewhat ironically, its IT services are not contracted to its own arms-length telecommunications network provider Shetland Telecom. These are provided through Education Scotland as part of a connectivity package for all 32 Scottish local authorities paid for by the Scottish Government.

Flights in and out of Shetland meanwhile were able to continue operating because Loganair was able to hook up to airport operator HIAL’s satellite wifi back-up network.

As police declared a major incident and the islands emergency response teams convened their first meeting in Lerwick Town Hall, IT specialists were busy working on speedy and rather unbureaucratic solutions.


Ian Brown of local internet service provider (ISP) Shetland Broadband recalled how he had a quick meeting with NHS Shetland’s IT team leader Michael Peterson to discuss what needed to happen to get the health board’s telecommunications up and running again.

By the time the Shetland response team announced an emergency number for islanders early in Thursday afternoon, the health board’s telephone lines and internet were working again.

“We were happy to help them out because the health board is important to everybody,” Brown told Shetland News.

“There was no question of dillydallying by discussing contracts. It was just their IT guy and me having a 15 minute meeting discussing how we are getting connected and within an hour of that happening they were back online.”


Shetland Islands Council was not able to take advantage of the same shortcut for contractual reasons.

At the same time however, Faroese Telecom was able to activate some spare and unused fibre capacity on the damaged cable – something that had been reserved for later use – and bringing that into use on Thursday afternoon reconnected the services carried on the BT fibre within the damaged cable.

Speaking late on Thursday night, Faroese Telecom’s managing director Páll Højgaard Vesturbú said: “The break that happened after midnight did affect the fibres in the cable, but they were not cut off.

“Technicians have been working all day to restore services to the extent possible, and the situation is now improved, so most of the services in Shetland are back up and running.”

As a precaution and to avoid a further fault until the north section of the cable was fully repaired, BT also deployed specialist teams with satellite backup links “should either of the subsea cables fail while they are being repaired”.


On Sunday it was confirmed that the north section of the cable had been successfully repaired.

The resilience of the isles’ connectivity links will no doubt be hotly debated over coming weeks. However, with a third subsea cable, the Scottish Government R100 link, being commissioned in spring or summer next year, the likelihood of a similar scenario unfolding again is low.

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? 
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