Islanders may be able to get their broadband and telephone services through a new public sector-backed company called Shetland Telecom in a few years.
Fed up with the sub-standard speed of connection and lack of reliability being provided by private companies including BT, which continues to prevaricate over connecting the isles’ infrastructure to a fibre optic cable laid from Faroe, councillors have agreed to set up a team tasked with improving telecommunications.
The ambitious idea of setting up a telecoms company is being driven by SIC chief executive David Clark, who was appalled when he started his job in May to discover BT’s behaviour. It follows news earlier this month that members are set to be asked to sanction a £1 million spend on the 20 or so miles of cable needed to connect the fibre optic link from where it is beached, at Maywick, to Lerwick.
A report from economic development officer Marvin Smith reaffirmed that Shetland, like many other areas of the UK, “is not being adequately served by the established telecommunications companies”. It stated: “The council needs to take the initiative … without some lateral thinking, investment, co-ordination and formation of an overall strategy Shetland will continue to be left behind the rest of the UK.”
The idea is for the council, or the charitable trust, to enter into a partnership with one or more major telecoms companies. It is a move which could create “a number of good quality telecoms jobs”. The EU will have to be consulted over any state aid implications, but the report notes that Brussels “seems to be looking favourably” on public investment in such projects in peripheral areas.
Mindful of a fault which caused an eight-hour breakdown in phone and broadband communications back in June, councillors were keen to press ahead with the idea during Thursday’s meeting of the development committee.
Several said they hoped any improvements to the service would apply to all areas of Shetland rather than just Lerwick, with Shetland North councillor Bill Manson pointing out that while the town might be getting a second-rate service compared to more populous parts of the UK mainland, many rural areas were getting “third or fourth or fifth rate” connection speeds.
Councillor Jonathan Wills said it was “absolutely vital” to establish more reliable communications. “Big companies have really let us down and we may have to go it alone,” he said. “We need someone we can trust and rely upon. We’ve got involved in many much sillier things in the past; we don’t want any more crashes like we had in June.”
There was no question in Lerwick South councillor Gussie Angus’ mind that commercial interests were being put above any notion of public service, but he pointed out that the creation of a council-backed or owned company would put on the pressure: “If we get this wrong, we could have huge liability costs.”
Lerwick North member Allan Wishart said it would be wise not to jump two feet first into a “complex and fast-moving industry” and he was a little concerned to learn that the Faroese cable had cut out a few times since it was laid in 2008. “I’m not against researching, but I think we need to exercise great caution – let’s proceed slowly.”