By NEIL RIDDELL
The council is trying to start a co-ordinated cross-party political campaign to secure wider and faster broadband internet access for Shetlanders. There are also calls for new masts to be erected to improve mobile phone signal coverage.
The development committee last week agreed to a suggestion from councillor Jonathan Wills that MP Alistair Carmichael, MSP Tavish Scott and regional MEPs and MSPs be asked to get involved in a campaign to ask the government and BT to roll out their 21st century network (21CN) in remote and rural areas.
Dr Wills said that he applauded efforts by the economic development unit to roll out a trial of wireless broadband networks in Vidlin and Fetlar, but that a broader strategy to press the government and telecom firms was needed because Shetland was “being discriminated against”.
Councillors Betty Fullerton and Laura Baisley, meanwhile, stressed the need to eliminate “blackspots” for mobile signal. Mrs Fullerton said a “concentrated effort” was needed to get more masts installed and she was under the impression that companies would act “if they get enough lobbying”.
Ms Baisley agreed, describing the mobile network as “dreadful in places” and pointing out that they were of increasing importance in remote rural areas as BT is cutting down the number of call boxes. “For a visitor it’s essential,” she said. “[We’re supposed to be] encouraging people to get out into the countryside [and] people are coming to rely on technology.”
Dr Wills voiced his frustration at the way the provision of telecoms has developed in the UK and stressed the importance of ensuring broadband access for remote communities to help maintain and expand the Shetland economy.
He said: “It [BT] is a public utility; the problem is the public utility has been treated as a private monopoly – its basis for operation can only be profit. If the government lives up to its own rhetoric about the information superhighway, it has to ensure everyone gets equal access. The whole point is equal opportunity of access to world markets.
“[The Shetland economy] absolutely has to have high-speed broadband, whether looking at the tourist industry, attracting visitors to websites, the fishing industry selling its produce through electronic auctions, hopefully the livestock industry too – you must have it, it’s absolutely essential.
“While we support pilot projects for local solutions, we have to keep the pressure on the commercial operators: that can only be done through government pressure. [There is a] fibre optic cable that goes right past our doorstep. BT is still basically the monopoly telephone provider, they won’t spend the money to connect us up, it’s not good enough.”
Marvin Smith, of the council’s economic development unit, said the trials of wireless broadband in Vidlin and Fetlar would be able to provide a speed of up to 2MB and that theoretically the equipment being installed would be able to handle 50MB or 100MB speeds.
The trials are part of a £100,000 community study and the two areas are among 11 places in Shetland which are still unable to get fast internet connections and instead have to rely on “exchange activate” broadband at a fraction of the speed available to computer users elsewhere in the isles.
BT offers packages with a speed of up to 8MB but in reality connections in Shetland – and many other areas – are some way below that, often struggling to get much past 2MB, though the price of its packages does not vary depending on the speeds customers can access.
Because it is only a pilot project, connections are being offered to residents in the two communities at £17.99 a month. Mr Smith said: “The real value will be significantly more, but we want folk to trial it. The amount of data that we’re going to get from [Vidlin and Fetlar] is going to be interesting. If it’s trialled and it works then it could be rolled out in other communities.”
More generally, Mr Smith welcomed the message from councillors that the pressure needs to be kept on BT and the government to try and improve provision for rural areas. The hope is that by aligning with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), a deal can be hammered out to improve broadband coverage in remote communities throughout Scotland.
Mr Smith pointed to a recent announcement from Ofcom that it would be allowing BT to install networks in remote areas which only it can use, in order to allow the company to make a profit. “There was a statement saying we’ll let BT run a monopoly so they can make money back in areas which aren’t financially viable.
For all it’s creating a bigger monopoly, if there’s an economic case [then it could prove to be helpful].”
He said that if there proved to be an economic case for it, the economic development unit could look at part-funding the cost of connecting Shetland to the fibre optic cable laid by Faroese Telecom, which beached at Maywick last year. BT has leased capacity on the cable but says it has no plans to use it until it upgrades Shetland to 21CN, which may not happen until 2012, but the economic development unit has been trying for months to find an interim solution.