Organisations are “lining up” to use the new council-owned fibre optic link to free themselves from the unpopular and unreliable BT microwave link from the Scottish mainland and benefit from faster broadband.
At least one major oil-related company at Sullom Voe has bought into the service, following on from last month’s big coup in getting BT onboard. BT is expected to connect this month but has previously said it only plans to go live for its customers towards the end of the year.
Other customers already on the Shetland Telecom fibre include Mareel, LHD, Shetland Seafood Auctions, Shaw Marketing and The Shetland Times. Many users are accessing the system via private service provider Shetland Broadband.
It is hoped that another major boost will be obtained if the Scottish government’s Pathfinder project joins the network to provide much cheaper and better high-speed data links to schools and other public buildings.
The project to provide the cable allows data transfer speeds of around 20 megabits per second, which is around five times the speed provided by existing home broadband providers.
Shetland Telecom project manager Marvin Smith said this week the custom so far had already justified the public money invested in the cable and new ones were “lining up”.
He revealed that the fibre optic cable is now likely to be laid as far north as Mossbank and Toft, rather than to the foot of the access road at Total’s new gas plant. The extra miles are thanks to savings on the existing contract. It will allow more local residents the unexpected chance to hook up to super-fast internet.
The network will then be ready to make the leap across Yell Sound on its way through the North Isles, if and when funding becomes available.
The work, which was originally just to lay the cable to Brae and Sella Ness, is expected to be finished by Christmas. It is now passing through Brae on its way to Sella Ness.
The job is being done by specialist “mole ploughing and trenching” contractor Doocey North East. The northern leg is being laid much faster and cheaper because it can mostly be laid into the road verge rather than sunk into a micro-trench in the tarmac using the “ditch witch”. That has been possible because, unlike the road south of Lerwick, the water and phone services are all buried at one side and will not be disturbed. However, the “ditch witch” is being used through Brae.
Doocey is also to do the last leg of trenching from the Scord down to Scalloway Harbour. The job was abandoned last year by ACE, the same company which quit the Walls Pier construction. The contract was re-let to MK Leslie whIch sub-contracted to Doocey.
Meanwhile, talks have finally begun with the Crown Estate more than a year and a half after the council wrote asking for a price and permission to lay the cable on the seabed to cross Clift Sound. The extra strap will connect into Faroese Telecom’s cable at Maywick, giving the Shetland network an alternative route if the main loop fails.
Nothing had been heard from the national agency, which imposes a rent for use of the seabed. Recently councillor Billy Fox said the lack of response was “disturbing”.
The council was forced to look at other options, including keeping the cable on the land, running it along the top of the ridge of hills between Scalloway and Maywick. But Mr Fox warned that the recent landslide at Uradale had shown that the whole of the hill was actually moving.
The hill option also requires approval from organisations like Scottish Natural Heritage and Shetland Amenity Trust. Reports are being compiled to submit to them.
Mr Smith said another option was to lay the cable to the landward side of the hills. It would not be buried, just run inside plastic pipes which would be set into the surface.
The seabed option is now looking less attractive anyway, Mr Smith said, because of the high cost of having to charter in a repair ship if the cable got damaged.
The Shetland Telecom project started with a £1.5 million investment to connect into the Faroese cable at Sandwick and lay a loop cable as far Lerwick and Scalloway. The EU provided 20 per cent of the funding. The new leg to the North Mainland is an £800,000 phase.