Anyone passing the Cunningsburgh Hall earlier this month might have wondered why a team of men were busy, even in the dark, erecting a structure in the car park which looked like it might be for a wind turbine. The mystery deepened when all that was attached to the chunky 10-metre steel column was two tiny aerials.
It turns out the new landmark provides Cunningsburgh Primary School with a high-speed wireless broadband internet and email service. It went live on Friday 18th December – the last of 75 sites in Shetland to be plugged into the so-called Pathfinder North network.
The reason for the workers’ haste is because December was the deadline for completion of the much-delayed £70 million Pathfinder venture across the Highlands and Islands. The last two sites of a network of 800 broadband units were finally switched on by contractor Cable & Wireless three days after Cunningsburgh – in Shapinsay, Orkney, and Cromarty in the Highlands.
Pathfinder is a largely government-funded project begun in 2004 to help overcome the broadband connection problems for schools and public buildings in rural Scotland. The North project involved five local authorities, including Shetland Islands Council, with the first users getting connected in May 2007.
The technology makes it possible to have video-conferencing and remote teaching as well as connecting all schools to a Scottish national intranet network called GLOW which is to be used to improve and expand teaching across the country, including collaborations between schools in different areas.
The Pathfinder team claims its system will deliver speeds of between two and 300 megabytes a second. The network across the Highlands and Islands has used different technologies. Radio “repeaters” were used for about half the 800 sites because they are cheaper than laying fibre cables. A few sites required expensive freestanding masts like the Cunningsburgh one but most were simply bolted onto the wall or roof of an existing public building.
In Shetland the sites which now have the super-fast service stretch from the Unst Heritage Centre in Haroldswick to the primary school in Fair Isle. They include ferry terminals, care centres, some council offices and depots, the NAFC Marine Centre, Brae youth centre, Bonhoga gallery and Tingwall Airport.
Communities and businesses in Vidlin and Fetlar are to share in the service too, thanks to a three-year pilot scheme funded by £100,000 from the council to help solve the poor broadband service in the areas.