28th May 2018
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Council seeks urgent talks with BT after phone breakdown

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The debate over the provision of phone and broadband links to Shetland intensified this week following a fault which caused a breakdown in communications for nearly eight hours last Friday.

Head of economic development Neil Grant is seeking urgent talks with BT over the incident, which was due to a blown fuse in a relay station in the Orkney island of Sanday. He is also compiling a report to assess the cost to the islands of the breakdown.

SIC chief executive David Clark described BT’s claim that the microwave link between Shetland and the mainland, which comes via Orkney and Fair Isle, was fit for purpose as “absolute nonsense”.

The council wants BT to connect to a Faroese fibre-optic cable which comes ashore in Shetland at Maywick and recently com­mis­sioned a study into this possibility. But BT is resisting the suggestion, pointing out that its 21st Century network of high-speed broadband will arrive in the isles by 2011. It is understood that the Faroese cable, which is not buried under the seabed, has itself been cut off three times in the last year after being severed by trawlers.

Mr Clark said: “Neil is setting up a meeting with BT. It was a disaster for the community when it happened, but actually it was fairly timely in demonstrating BT’s claim that what we have is fit for purpose is absolute nonsense.

“I’m hopeful … we’ll be able to work cooperatively in finding a speedy resolution to what we are wanting [to have] done. This is one I take very seriously.”

Isles MSP Tavish Scott said: “I am deeply concerned that Shetland effectively lost contact with the rest of the globe [on Friday]. I can hardly believe that it happened in the 21st century. We all need to know why it happened and as fast as possible. If the answer is that BT should use the fibre optic cable rather than the weaker alternatives that are currently used then that is what should happen.”

Shetland Coastguard had to activate emergency cover with cliff rescue teams monitoring sites by hand-held or vehicle radio, and Sumburgh Airport was closed for more than five hours as a “pre­caution” following the break­down.

A spokesman for BT said that there had been a power cut last Thursday night, possibly caused by lightning, and the fault could have been caused by a power surge when the problem was rectified.

Due to its remote location it was several hours before an engineer could fly to the island to repair the fault, which had developed around 10.30am. The engineer eventually arrived on site at 3.30pm and the phone lines were working again by 5pm.

He said the problem knocked a number of links to the Northern Isles, with customers getting the engaged tone when trying to make a phone call. This was caused by “congestion” when all the remaining available phone lines were busy, and people hitting the redial button just creating more congestion. Broadband services and mobile phone networks were also affect­ed.

The spokesman said: “Openreach [the company that carries out repairs] sent an engineer to Sanday on the first available flight. He found that a fuse had blown and replaced it and recharged the station’s batteries.

“We are investigating why this happened but we know there was a power cut on Sanday during the night. It may be that when the power came back on there was a power surge which resulted in the fuse blowing but we want to investigate this further. We’d like to apologise for the break in service for some islanders.”

The service was “restricted” and it was impossible to say how many customers were affected, he said.

Also affected by the flight chaos was Carla Strachan from Yell, who was due to climb Ben Nevis in a charity fund-raiser for the National Autistic Society the following day. Booked on the 12.10pm flight to Glasgow, she eventually got on a flight to Edinburgh around 6pm, arriving in the capital at 7.30pm and with no trains or buses had no choice but to take a taxi to Fort William at a cost of £250.

On arrival in the town the taxi driver asked police officers for directions to the hostel where Carla was to stay – they led the way by driving there in front of the taxi. Carla said: “I had an adventure before I got there and a police escort as well.”

Carla, 34, who with husband Eric has an autistic son Ethan, five, formed part of a team of 35 raising funds for the same charity. They set off from the base of the mountain at 9.45am and walked up 1,344 metres (4,409 ft above sea level). It was a sunny day at the bottom, but nearing the peak mist set in. This did not deter them, however, and with the help of the mountain guides they continued to the top, reaching the summit at around 3.30pm. They arrived back at the base at 7.15pm.

Carla said: “It was a lot harder than I expected but the weather conditions were really good. I was with a great bunch of people and we kept each other going.

“Autism is a complex disorder and I was really chuffed to raise £1,875 for the charity. It was amazing experience and these vital funds raised for NAS will be used to help individuals with autism, which is a serious lifelong and disabling condition.

“I would like to thank everyone who helped me raise this huge sum of money, and a special thanks to main sponsor Mainstream Shetland, who gave £500 to the charity.” Carla said she has joined the Shetland Field Studies Group in a bid to get fit for the climb, finding a new hobby in the process. She said: “I would recommend [to anyone] to take up a challenge for their charity.”

Sumburgh Airport was forced to close as all BT landlines and all mobile communication were knocked out, leaving the airport with no external communication. Airport manager Nigel Flaws said: “In the interests of safety we had to close because we did not know what kind of emergency response would be available as the pager system was also down.” Altogether two incoming flights were diverted to Scatsta (where mobile networks were working), two outbound flights were cancelled and four were delayed. The airport was open until 10pm that night to enable Loganair to attempt to clear the backlog of passengers, an operation that continued into Saturday.

One of those affected was Gemma Barber, who teaches at the primary school in Brae. She was booked on Friday’s 11am flight to Aberdeen, intending to go to Hampden to see band Take That the same evening.

A problem experienced by the airline (unconnected with the phone lines being cut off) saw her being transferred to the 12.10pm Glasgow flight. But by that time the airport was not operating, and the flight was first delayed, then cancelled. The bags had gone onto the plane, then came back onto the carousel. Her bags stayed there.

Ms Barber said: “The staff on the ground did their best but the airport was chaos. There were a few disgruntled people trying to collect people from incoming flights, not knowing they had landed at Scatsta.”

Ms Barber had been hoping to visit her mother in Falkirk prior to the concert, but was unable to phone to tell her the situation.

Meanwhile passengers were offered the option of the boat and were queuing at desks to put their name down before being bussed to Lerwick. Queues also formed for flights to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which quickly filled up with Ms Barber unable to get a seat. These flights did leave in the evening.

Eventually the mobile phone signal came back and amid the sound of many phones ringing Ms Barber heard a plane starting up. It later turned out the Glasgow flight had taken off, empty. She was offered the 8pm Aberdeen flight, but then it transpired it was delayed until 9.45pm Ms Barber was too disheartened to take it. She said: “It was a horrible, horrible roller coaster of a day.”

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