Communities in every part of Shetland could enjoy some of the best broadband in the world within three years if a bold new council venture takes off.
Hot on the heels of its £1.1 million fibre optic cable from Lerwick to connect to the worldwide data communications network via the Faroese cable at Maywick, the local authority is now to explore extending superfast, reliable and affordable broadband to within the grasp of all outlying communities.
The belief is that Shetland needs a network that can provide 100 mega bits per second by 2014 and 1,000Mbps by 2020, which would be 125 times faster than the current and highly erratic domestic maximum of 8Mbps.
The council suspects that without its intervention remote rural areas may never be able to fully access cyberspace with its unlimited opportunities for business, education and leisure and with it the prospect of attracting new industries and luring new people to settle.
Already many Shetland broadband users at times suffer unacceptable breaks in service, hopelessly slow speeds and poor customer support from commercial telecoms providers like BT. They are considered by the council to be very unlikely to provide the superfast connections required for the future without substantial financial support to do so.
In his document A Digital Shetland, council development officIAL Marvin Smith warned: “Shetland is now lagging behind the rest of the UK and the UK is lagging behind a large percentage of Europe.”
He said high-quality affordable telecoms services were consistently highlighted as the critical requirement for the future growth and sustainability of Shetland.
Today the council’s development committee agreed to set up a working group to investigate how best to provide a fast broadband network, whether it be the council’s own fibre optic network through its new company Shetland Telecom; helping a commercial telecoms company provide a similar network or perhaps simply leasing a service in the unlikely event that a commercial company wants to go ahead itself.
The council has several strong motives for taking action. It needs a more powerful network for 74 of its own 96 buildings around the islands, including schools and offices, because the existing government-funded Pathfinder network is due to end in 2014 – what council IT official Guy Smith called “a Cinderella moment”.
It must also seek to fulfil its pledges to spread jobs out from Lerwick and to ensure that the islands’ economy is strengthened by new industry, not just based in the centre.
The route of the council’s proposed fibre optic cable takes in all 12 industrial parks and 10 doctors’ surgeries in Shetland along with most council schools and buildings and police and fire stations.
Communities which are not on the line of the proposed cable, such as Fair Isle, Foula, Skerries, Burra, Bressay, Muckle Roe and West Burrafirth, could join in through high-speed wireless links of up to 1,000mbps, which is 100 times faster than the versions being trialled with council money in Fetlar and Vidlin.
Demand for ever-increasing capability is such that a small Shetland school requiring a four megabytes per second speed four years ago is likely to need 100Mbps in just three years from now.
According to Mr Smith, one solution becoming popular elsewhere is the so-called “fibre to the village pump” model. “The theory behind this is that investment is made in order to get fibre connectivity to village/community and then the community put together their own solution for the last mile.
“The ‘digital village pump’ would be either an exchange, public building or a street cabinet which would house active equipment which then could be used as a starting point for a community’s access network.
“An access network is the ‘last mile’ connection from the core network to the customer’s home or business. This access network could either be fibre optic or wireless (or a mix of the two) depending on what the community wants.”
He said communities could either form a co-op, or a community interest company, to raise funds or apply for grants. If they did not want their own network they could see if a service provider, such as Shetland Broadband, would step in.
Although there will always be scepticism about estimated costs calculated by the council, it is reckoned that using an equivalent BT-provided system would cost £4.75 million to lease over 10 years just for council premises in rural Shetland, which is about the same cost as the council providing its own network. It might even earn money by leasing excess capacity to companies like BT.
Backing the venture at today’s meeting, North Isles councillor Laura Baisley said: “To my mind it could be one of the most important investments that Shetland has ever made in its future.”
The working group is to report back with its proposals in spring, providing a specification to put out to commercial telecoms companies to gauge interest. It will also look at what grant aid might be available to help pay for any proposed council project.
It will also look at how to connect some parts of the Mainland which are not on the proposed cable route.