The SIC has become so fed up with BT’s persistent intransigence and refusal to do anything to help improve broadband services in the isles that it is to spend £60,000 on a study into how the telecoms network can be hooked up to a fibre optic cable at Maywick laid by a Faroese company last year.
New council chief executive David Clark did not mince his words in vowing this week to find a way for the cable to be connected to the network, which would significantly improve the reliability of broadband and remove BT’s monopoly stranglehold.
Mr Clark told The Shetland Times it was “appalling” and an “absolute travesty” that the cable hadn’t yet been linked to the isles-wide network and, in the face of continued inertia from BT, is determined to find private sector partners willing to make that happen.
BT has leased capacity on the fibre optic cable but in 2008 it became clear that the company had “little or no plans” to improve the network until it rolls out its 21st century network here. That was originally planned for 2012 but there is now no planned implementation date.
“It’s absolutely critical that we move forward, and if people aren’t interested in working with us to do so we’ll find others who will,” said Mr Clark.
“I find the position bizarre, but I’m not going to sit back complaining – we’re going to be proactive in getting out and finding a solution. It’s fundamental to our economic strategy and it’s been sitting dormant for too long. Let’s do something about it.
“When you take the Faroese with their foresight in getting the cable laid – and good on Shetland for persuading them – it’s an absolute travesty that nothing has happened about linking that into a live network across the isles. Let’s talk to some of the other IT companies that maybe haven’t been spoken to so far.”
He pointed to the use of online auctioning at Lerwick fish market as just one good example of how technology can help generate a forward-looking economic development programme. “That’s the type of thing we’re doing in the current circumstances. It demonstrates the potential in the community if we’ve got the proper IT infrastructure.”
The research project will try to identify a detailed vision for how telecommunications should be developed in Shetland and will also involve a technical survey establishing viable options for connecting the fibre optic cable to a “Point of Presence” in Lerwick, which may involve laying a new cable from Sandwick to the town.
The economic development unit may consider part-funding the cost of connecting to the cable, which beached at Maywick last year. The whole process could conceivably be completed within 12-18 months and economic development official Marvin Smith said the connection would improve reliability and unlock the monopoly that BT have, opening up a range of opportunities for companies to invest.
Mr Smith said there had been enquiries from firms interested in having back-up recovery servers stationed in the isles in case of unforeseen disasters or even terrorist attacks, with Shetland having the advantage of being offshore, secure and as far away from Canary Wharf as possible. “There’s opportunities there that we can’t even begin to look at just now. Opening up competition can only be a good thing.”
Speaking during yesterday’s development committee meeting, North Mainland councillor Bill Manson hit out at BT for its disinterest and said it was “really very frustrating” that political pressure in recent months had not been able to force some action to obviate the need for public expenditure. “BT spent years saying their microwave links were adequate. Another company provides the cable, they buy space and say they won’t use it,” he said.
In a statement, a BT spokesman said: “We took advantage of leasing capacity on the Faroese cable as part of the massive amount of preparatory work we are progressing so that people living in the Northern Isles can share in the benefits that our next-generation network will bring. A huge amount of work is going on in the background, for example, links have to be built on the Scottish mainland to take Shetland traffic to Inverness and Aberdeen on the new network.
“The 21st century network is one of the biggest projects BT has ever undertaken and much more work will have to be done before the new network comes to Shetland. We’ve always said it wasn’t going to happen overnight. The rollout schedule for the network has been agreed with all the communications companies operating in the UK, and is not down to BT alone.
“BT has invested heavily in its two existing radio links into Shetland and they are fit for purpose, providing the same industry standard broadband to the majority of Shetlanders as that enjoyed by our customers on the Scottish mainland. There are commercial realities to be considered here but BT is always more than happy to discuss with the council any concerns that they have, just as we have done in the past.”