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Connectivity / Digital divide has increased, councillor warns

‘There are people that can quite easily stream movies, and there are others that can scarcely send an email’, Gary Robinson says

THE DIGITAL divide between those with speedy broadband and those without is “greater than it ever was”, a councillor has suggested.

Lerwick North and Bressay member Gary Robinson told a meeting of Shetland Islands Council’s audit committee on Wednesday that he felt has been little progress in better connectivity to “hard to reach” areas.

It comes as a review is due to be carried out on Shetland Telecom after concerns were raised by auditors that its role and purpose is unclear.

The organisation, which is part of Shetland Islands Council, was established in 2009 to deploy a local fibre broadband network.

That work has since formally ended but Shetland Telecom has continued with individual projects.

SIC depute leader Gary Robinson. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

It was the subject of one of council’s latest internal audit checks, and Audit Glasgow found that Shetland Telecom was lacking a formal strategy.

A report presented to members of the audit committee stated that the local authority’s own fibre network brings in a net income of around £310,000 a year.

More recently the network was extended to the North Isles, and this was overseen by Shetland Telecom as an individual project.

Councillor Stephen Leask said he felt Shetland Telecom was somewhat “ethereal” amongst councillors and said its role appeared to not be clearly defined.

The council’s corporate services director Christine Ferguson said Shetland Telecom “initially did some excellent work in putting in additional fibre and provided high speed connectivity to a range of organisations, not just council premises”.

She said Shetland Telecom brand is “very useful and well known, but that is essentially part of the economic development aspect of it, and I think that is where we need to get that clarity”.

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Ferguson also told Wednesday’s meeting that Shetland Telecom also plays a part in liaising with the Scottish Government’s R100 superfast broadband roll-out.

“The job isn’t done, and the R100 initiative from the Scottish Government isn’t going to deliver in the foreseeable future,” she said.

“So I think it’s really important we maintain that presence, that brand, that initiative.”

Robinson said he was part of the original Shetland Telecom steering group many years ago.

He felt there was still a need for the organisation – especially in helping to bring broadband to hard to reach areas like the outlying parts of Shetland.

It comes as the R100 scheme, which aims to bring superfast broadband to all, is set to miss out certain rural areas.

As a result a voucher scheme has been put in place to allow households in these areas to access alternative technology like satellite broadband or 4G mobile internet.

Work is progressing within the council, however, on a strategic outline programme looking at extending the fibre network to settlements not currently in scope for the R100 programme to provide options for connectivity.

A seminar is to be arranged with elected members to discuss future options.

At Wednesday’s meeting Robinson said he believed the digital gap in the community had increased.

Fellow ward councillor Stephen Leask noted there have been recurring issues for broadband in Bressay.

Robinson also said he felt the original ambition of Shetland Telecom has not been fully realised, with a frustration around the extent to which external providers have helped local connectivity.

“Those hard to reach areas are still the hard to reach areas, and they’re still the areas being left behind,” he said.

“We’re well aware that there are people that can quite easily stream movies, and there are others that can scarcely send an email.”

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