Work on laying a cable to enable superfast broadband for businesses and households is ready to begin, using a “Ditch Witch” machine which was successfully tested out at Gremista today.
A fibre optic connection will be laid along the A970 road between the south of Lerwick and Hoswick, with work due to get underway at Sound early next week. Contractor Tulloch Developments hopes to have 13 miles-worth of cable laid beneath the road by late March or into April, depending on the weather.
It is hoped the fibre optic network will transform communications between Shetland and the wider world and help attract new businesses to the isles.
The revolutionary technique being employed is much cheaper and more environmentally friendly than traditional methods. Tulloch Developments invested £55,000 in the Ditch Witch, the only machine of its kind in the UK. It is essentially a mini tractor with a circular saw attached which slices through the road surface.
The SIC decided to make its own £1.1 million investment to hook up to Faroese Telecom’s “SHEFA2” cable, having become fed up with the inertia of telecoms giant BT. The company’s existing microwave link is slow and frequently disrupted, causing major frustration as recently as last week for many households and businesses.
Shetland Telecom, an arms-length organisation with two full-time SIC staff, was created in late 2009 and four months ago the local authority attracted £365,000 in European funding to support the project.
The first part of the cable is being laid between Lerwick and Hoswick, creating a fibre optic network which will give private telecoms firms such as Shetland Broadband, BT and Cable & Wireless the opportunity to offer superfast speeds to their customers as early as the summer. The SIC may step in and offer a direct service to customers in the event of market failure.
Tulloch Developments has developed the “micro trenching” technique in conjunction with council roads department engineers. It involves the Ditch Witch machine cutting a 20mm slot in the road surface to a depth of around 100mm. The cable is then laid with foam packing and the hole will be filled in with concrete and tar on top.
Shetland Telecom’s Guy Smith explained this was around five times cheaper, taking the project from being “prohibitively expensive” to “potentially cost-saving” for the council.
“The old cable was 110mm wide, dug 600mm deep into a 200mm-wide trench,” he explained. “You are looking at doing about 20 metres a day. It shows Shetland as being quite innovative, forward-thinking and dynamic.”
Later in 2011, the loop will be completed by installing a second cable running through Scalloway, Trondra and Burra, with a submarine cable to be laid underneath Clift Sound across to Maywick. The second cable is designed to improve the network’s resilience, hopefully putting an end to the spate of communications disruptions to which many islanders have become accustomed.
When the cable was first laid in 2007, BT refused to invest in joining Shetland to the Faroese link even though it already crosses the isles from Maywick to Hoswick en route to Orkney and Banff. Councillors repeatedly criticised the company’s failure to increase the quality and reliability of bandwidth connections, despite it having leased capacity on the cable.
Development committee vice-chairman Alastair Cooper told The Shetland Times it would initially allow the SIC to put high speed communications into its own buildings – including 11 schools, its port at Scalloway and care centre in Levenwick.
In that sense, the £1.1 million investment should pay for itself within a decade. But potentially more significant is the avenues it will open up for existing private firms, and the opportunity to attract new businesses – such as Dingwall-based IT firm Alchemy Plus, which plans to build a £12 million data centre in Lerwick.
“We’ve always been at the back end of every telecom upgrade in the UK and the world,” said Mr Cooper. “This could actually take us to the forefront for the first time.”
He continued: “We’re like any other rural community. When the business case goes in front of the telecoms board, the payback is too far out in the future and it doesn’t stack up in financial terms.
“The real benefit is that we will enable the private sector to move into Shetland and provide the services they’re providing in an urban area because they won’t have had the capital cost.”
The project has been a labour of love for economic development official Marvin Smith, who has been working on how to improve broadband for several years. He said the next step would be transferring the benefits to every remote area of Shetland.
He said: “The beauty is that community buildings can be used as the ‘digital village pump’, the government’s idea that you get fibre as close to the communities as possible and then we look at different solutions from that.
“In the same way they got together to sort out marinas, district heating schemes, they could come together as community interest groups and deploy their own fibre, or wireless – pick a solution for their own community.”
Investment to roll the cable out across Shetland could come from central government, telecoms firms, the council or a combination of all three.
A report is being prepared for the next meeting of the development committee, though Mr Cooper acknowledges that in the current financial climate it is not something the SIC can do by itself: “Sitting here today, we have the vision but we don’t have the money.”