Shetland moved a step closer to creating its own broadband provider on Thursday, but councillors are still happy to extend an olive branch to BT to help bring its plans to fruition.
Members of the SIC’s development committee approved a £150,000 budget to help launch external organisation Shetland Telecom when they met at the Town Hall.
It is hoped hooking the fibre optic cable laid from Faroe to Scotland to Shetland’s network will improve broadband reliability and unlock the monopoly that BT has long had, boosting communication links for businesses and households.
It could also be the first step which will lead to a council-owned infrastructure covering both internet and mobile communications.
The attempt to link to the fibre optic cable at Maywick laid by a Faroese company last year is being made after BT repeatedly refused to do anything which might help improve broadband services in the isles imminently. The entire project is expected to cost £1.5 million to construct.
Following lengthy discussions by councillors, it was agreed the cable plans will take their place on the council’s capital programme, despite a last-minute plea by councillor Allison Duncan to try one more time with BT.
“I don’t decry this report, but why don’t we delay a decision for consultation with telephone companies?” he asked. “I’ve been told that BT are interested in this, but don’t give it a high priority at the moment.
“We’re going to spend a lot of money here, and I feel we should have more dialogue over this and leave it to the private sector and market forces.”
Economic development official Marvin Smith told committee members the council had had dialogue with BT for three years and there had been “no progress made whatsoever”.
Councillor Gussie Angus said it was clear despite repeated attempts that BT were not going to get on-board, but said good broadband was “absolutely essential” for rural areas.
Councillor Allan Wishart said he it would do no harm to “get senior people up from BT” to speak to the development committee. “It is a huge sum of money. Let’s hear what they are saying.”
However councillor Gary Robinson said he was happy to remain engaged with all providers, but he did not think that should delay the process. He was seconded by councillor Jonathan Wills. “We should go ahead with this as soon as possible,” said Dr Wills.
Councillor Betty Fullerton said she did not think the council should “waste more time”. She called for the SIC to write to BT to ask for help again while carrying on with its own plans.
That way, she said, an “audit trail” could be left which would confirm all avenues were explored. “I think the socio-economic benefits are too important to Shetland,” she said.
Councillor Laura Baisley said there was no need to “close down any other options”, just because the council was consulting with BT.
The discussions came after councillors were presented with a report from consultants Analysis Mason which recommends an external organisation as the most appropriate model for future broadband provision.
The scheme was prompted by last year’s failure of the microwave telecoms link to Shetland operated by BT, which resulted in the closure of Sumburgh Airport and the loss of business for shops.
“This approach will allow SIC to maintain an element of control over future use of the infrastructure, while complying with EU guidelines for state aid,” the report said.
A separate report from the economic development unit suggested there will be a “continual need” for investment. “In order to fully address the ever-increasing demand for new digital services and to ensure that Shetland’s telecommunications infrastructure does not lag behind there will be a continual need for future investment. Strategic investment may be required on a project by project basis in conjunction with industry and service users.”