Speaking during Shetland’s digital forum in Islesburgh on Monday afternoon, BT Scotland director Brendon Dick announced that a fibre optic link to the islands should be operational by the turn of the year.
That should allow Lerwick residents to access broadband speeds of up to 20Mbps (megabits per second), compared to a current maximum of 8Mbps.
Perhaps more significantly, the fibre cable will end islanders’ dependence upon a notoriously unreliable microwave link, which should bring considerable benefit to internet users throughout Shetland.
Mr Dick said BT was “laying the building blocks for any future deployment of fibre broadband”, though he was told by some of those present that the length of time it had taken to upgrade the Shetland link had been “really appalling”.
The announcement was welcomed by MSP Tavish Scott, though he warned more action needed to follow to assist those living outside of Lerwick.
“There is still much to do because many areas of Shetland have next to no broadband,” Mr Scott said. “That is why the UK and Scottish Government investment must work to reach those areas.”
Mr Scott said he hoped a £5 million community broadband initiative announced last month would go towards upgrading the eight exchanges which limit broadband access in some of Shetland’s most remote locations.
During the 80-minute digital forum meeting, Mr Dick heard from several local entrepreneurs who were thoroughly fed up with frequent faults and outages which are hampering their businesses.
One of those, Suzy Jolly, has had to contend with a faulty connection since moving here in 2009. Ms Jolly suggested that BT had ignored Shetland and other parts of the country for years because it was “greedy”.
Mr Dick responded by saying that, while commercial reality dictated that it was unable to invest in very small communities, BT was doing more than any other communications company to bolster the availability of fast broadband in the Highlands and Islands.
Another member of the public demanded to know why she was being charged the same price for her broadband as a friend in Sheffield, who gets a faster and much more reliable service.
Mr Scott said that reflected a feeling among many in Shetland that the service they paid various broadband providers for “does not meet the advertised standards”.
“People should get what they pay for and if they don’t they should either pay less or receive compensation,” he said, adding he would be pursuing the matter with the telecoms regulator and MP Alistair Carmichael.
BT’s fibre link from Inverness will also provide a new business ethernet service to Lerwick and Kirkwall as well as five mainland towns. Almost 1,000km of fibre cable, including 400km on the seabed, will be used, making it one of the longest optical transmission systems in the UK.
Mr Dick described the network as offering large businesses and public sector organisations a “massive step forward in communications capability at the same time as significantly reducing costs”.
Ethernet allows businesses to opt for a choice of guaranteed broadband speeds provide through a dedicated line. It is hoped that some business customers will be able to access up to 300Mbps as early as next year.
West Side-based businessman John White pointed out that he was struggling to even get one per cent of that speed. “What really matters is, when are we going to get anything like a broadband service in areas like West Burrafirth?”
It is expected that a chunk of the £120 million in UK and Scottish Government cash aimed at rolling out faster broadband in the Highlands and Islands will go towards further boosting connection speeds in Shetland.
But SIC development committee chairman Alastair Cooper – one of several councillors present at the meeting – said the pot of money fell far short of what was required to get 100 per cent coverage in the Highlands and Islands. “With £120million, we’ll never be at West Burrafirth, probably never even be at Mossbank,” he said.
BT’s new system had required “rigorous testing” in the company’s Suffolk laboratories, with specialist equipment installed at 20 different sites along the route.
The existing microwave radio links that serve Orkney and Shetland are to be retained as back-up, but Mr Dick said they “should become fairly superfluous”.
He said: “Faster broadband is touching the lives of everyone – from small businesses and homeworkers, to internet shoppers, students, families and online gaming enthusiasts – and transforming the way we do things, for the better. BT is committed to making faster technologies available to as many homes and businesses as possible.”
Mr Dick also revealed that BT has set up a unique fault reporting service for Orkney and Shetland. The idea is to have a nominated individual who can act as a point of contact and help to identify incidents, so BT is not reliant on individual homes and businesses logging faults with their providers. The service will operate until the new fibre link is up and running.