With fast broadband weeks away, communities are urged to join up

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Rural communities are being urged to get together and discuss how their areas might hook up to the new fibre optic cable which will revolutionise the speed at which Shetlanders can access the internet.

The first portion of the SIC’s crucial £1.1 million cable, running in a roadside micro-trench between Maywick and Lerwick, should go live at some point next month. That will allow telecoms firms – with Shetland Broadband possibly the first – to hook their customers up to data speeds in excess of 25 megabytes per second (Mbps), more than treble the current top speed.

But once it is live, faster broadband will only be within the grasp of communities including Sandwick, Cunningsburgh, Quarff and Gulberwick once they find a way to connect to the fibre cable.

Shetland Telecom project manager Marvin Smith said the SIC would theoretically now be able to install “digital village pumps”, or access points, anywhere between Sandwick and Lerwick. That would allow communities to put in their own solution, either wirelessly or by running more fibre from the pumps to homes and businesses.

Mr Smith is keen for groups in the aforementioned communities, and any others between Sandwick and the town, to get in touch to discuss possible options.

“It should be up and running roughly a month from now,” he said. “We’re certainly in the position now where we need to have conversations with any groups that are wanting to push forward with better telecommunications in their area. Where people will be able to afford to do it is where there are groups of houses.”

There have been hitches in laying the cable to Scalloway, where a late start meant contractors ACE halted work because of rainy weather late last year. Contrary to rumours circulating in the construction trade that ACE has walked away altogether, the SIC insisted it expected the contractor to return to finish the job this spring.

Mr Smith said the delay was “not critical” because the connection only needs to be complete in time to link up with the cable going from Trondra Bridge across Clift Sound and back down to Maywick at the end of this summer.

Work will not stop there, though. Plans are already afoot, subject to funding, for fibre to be laid between Lerwick and the North Mainland, with other remote areas to follow.

A paper entitled “Digital Shetland” sets out the council’s aim of furnishing nine-tenths of the Shetland population with access to next generation broadband – speeds faster than 25Mbps – within four years. With an eye on future developments, the cable is capable of coping with much faster data transfer speeds – 100Mbps is swiftly becoming the norm on the UK mainland.
That SIC goal looks increasingly critical as householders engage more and more in bandwidth-hogging activities such as downloading film, TV and music on demand, uploading photos to social networking sites and using Skype’s phone service online.

It is perhaps even more critical for Shetland businesses, particularly those reliant on the internet for videoconferencing and the sending and receiving of large digital documents and images.

Rapid technological developments could transform the way NHS Shetland provides certain aspects of healthcare, particularly in remote rural areas. The “Digital Shetland” document states that more care will be offered remotely in future – in some cases patients will be assessed by a doctor using a video link-up direct to the patient’s home.

Much-vaunted SIC aspirations to disperse jobs to rural areas might be aided by the cable’s presence, which should make it easier for businesses to be run outwith Lerwick and might also tempt IT businesses to set up in the islands.

Shetland Broadband owner Ian Brown said many of his customers, and potential new clients, were “desperate” to get their hands on more bandwidth to help develop their businesses. Connecting to the fibre optic cable should also minimise the number of damaging interruptions to service which have caused so much frustration in recent years.

“In the last few months in particular, I’ve heard large businesses saying they do need bandwidth to improve their service, and they’re desperate to get that provision,” he said. “I’ve felt for the last two or three years that we’ve been held back on further development of our business, and our customers.”

Mr Brown – whose company concentrates mainly on engineering and network provision – now hopes to be able to offer his clients higher speeds at better prices, though he is not yet in a position to tell customers precisely what package he’ll be able to offer them.

The primary motivation which prompted the council to grab the initiative and lay the cable was to ensure 75 of its own buildings, including schools and offices, have a secure and speedy network. The existing government-funded Pathfinder service, based on microwave technology, is due to end in 2014 and there are no plans to replace it.

With that in mind, phase two of the project is expected to see fibre optic laid at the roadside between Lerwick, Brae and Mossbank. En route areas such as Girlsta and Voe would stand to benefit from that leg. Funding has still to be confirmed, but once it is in place things could get moving later this year.

Mr Smith said: “The logical next phase is to run north towards Mossbank, because that’s where the next [big] population centres are, and it takes in the most council premises. We’re looking at how we fund the whole network.”

In an instance of fact following fiction, the map the council is using to highlight where “digital village pumps” to access the fibre cable will go has been adapted from last year’s April Fool spoof in The Shetland Times, suggesting the council was to build an isles-wide underground tube network.

The SIC has tendered for a wholesale operator for the “backhaul” fibre network connecting Shetland to the rest of the world through the subsea cable from Faroe to the Scottish mainland, which comes ashore at Maywick. It is understood Faroese Telecom, which has major business clients of its own in Shetland, is in negotiations for the wholesale contract.

Thanks to the inaction of telecoms giants Shetland lags far behind the UK, itself trailing in the wake of much of Western Europe in developing 21st century communications technology. A small piece of good news came in the form of BT’s announcement just before Christmas that it was to update its Lerwick exchange.

In what BT insists is a development unrelated to the SIC’s bold venture, technology known as “ADSL+” – first rolled out in the UK five years ago – will nearly treble the speed broadband customers in Lerwick can access. The upgrade will enable the existing copper wires to handle connection speeds up to 20Mbps from this summer, compared to a current maximum of 8Mbps.

A BT spokeswoman this week explained that its existing town customers would get the faster speeds without having to alter their current broadband contracts. It will be up to other internet service providers to decide whether their customers will automatically benefit likewise, she said.

Virgin Media this week announced it would be able to offer more than half of UK customers with 100Mbps speeds by the middle of 2012, but the council’s bitter experience of BT’s repeated intransigence means it is impossible to tell when that might happen here.

Though Lerwick lacks the sort of cohesive community spirit found in parts of the countryside – and so is thought unlikely to mobilise to unlock access to the fibre cable in the way that smaller rural settlements might – the hope is that BT will eventually cough up the cash to connect town customers. It might also hook up other major population centres, such as Scalloway and Brae, to the cable and the superior broadband it enables.

The BT spokeswoman said that, although the company was deploying fibre elsewhere in the UK, it had no concrete plans for Shetland. The firm was keen to continue dialogue with the SIC about the possibility of using its fibre optic line, she added.


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