Residents in the North Isles are determined to get faster broadband, even if they have to provide it for themselves.
Meetings took place in Yell, Unst and Fetlar this week, organised by Fetlar Developments Ltd, the Unst Partnership, and the three local community councils, to garner support for better broadband provision. In a recent survey, 75 per cent of respondents said broadband was important or critical for them.
Broadband speeds in the North Isles are generally very slow, with some areas having speeds of under one megabit per second and others still on dial-up internet.
Development worker Robert Thomson is determined to improve this, saying some of the speeds people were getting was “hopeless”. He maintained faster broadband is vital for businesses and important for individuals too, and said: “The overriding aim is that everybody and anybody that wants it, gets it.” Even if not everyone wants it: “the option should be there.”
Mr Thomson said that the meetings had gained “general support from the people who attended” and he now hopes to involve even more people from each community.
Businesses, he said, had been “especially vocal” about the need for faster broadband, as many of them were virtually being forced to do things, such as pay tax, online.
Mr Thomson spoke of the possibility of providing a community broadband network, which had been done in many other parts of the country, and said: “It’s time we did something for ourselves.”
He referred to the B4RN (broadband for rural north) project in Lancashire to bring fibre to the home – the project is community led and owned and has delivered superfast broadband to areas that would have otherwise fallen victim to the digital divide.
Other places, including in Orkney and the Western Isles, have also taken the do-it-yourself approach. Mr Thomson said it has become more “do-able” recently, as the price of fibre has dropped “dramatically” in the last few months to less than £10 per metre.
But it is still early days and the project is in the very first stages of consultation. It could be possible to provide 30 Mbps, he said – this is the EU target for everyone by 2020 – but accurate costings are not yet available. He is looking at having high-speed links between the three North Isles, going across to Yell from Sullom Voe, with digital links to Fetlar and Unst.
He is now trying to recruit people from the isles to form working groups.
Much the same is happening in Unst. Unst Partnership local development officer Verona Shaw said in the south part of the isle served by the current copper-wired Uyeasound exchange people will never be able to get more than half a Mbps, and the whole exchange needs to be replaced. The bigger exchange at Baltasound gives faster speeds, probably up to six Mbps, but only to those close to the exchange. Because the copper-wired exchange is old, it can never support new technology.
Ms Shaw said in spite of BT’s pledge that 84 per cent of Scotland would benefit from faster broadband, the company would not say when Unst would be surveyed. This means that no funding application can be made to Community Broadband Scotland, because an area has to prove it is receiving less than two Mbps, and these areas have to be mapped.
Ms Shaw said: “We’re caught up in the system.” The aim of getting faster broadband available throughout Unst remains some way off, but Ms Shaw said it is vital as more and more services need to be accessed online.
Fetlar is on a pilot council scheme at the moment – this has provided every property in Fetlar with a fixed wireless broadband service, but it will be taken away in March when the project funding ends.
Project manager at Shetland Telecom Marvin Smith said it was important that the three isles are looking at the broadband issue “strategically” for the long-term.
He said the biggest cost in any potential project would be the capital cost of the labour, which, if a fibre were to be laid straight up the main roads of Yell and Unst would be “significantly less” than £1million, and much less if the communities did the work themselves. He said: “It’s not impossible, it just takes the communities to work together.”
MSP Tavish Scott said: “There is no doubt that poor or unreliable internet access constrains business and prevents consumers using the internet to its full potential.
“A huge 75 per cent said internet access was critical or important to them, many are not satisfied with current services. . .sadly, these findings do not come as a surprise to anyone trying to access the internet in the North Isles.
“The government is continuing to invest in improving broadband across Scotland but the central point is that new money must be targeted on areas where the current service is somewhere between poor and non-existent.”
Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said the coalition was committed to ensuring that superfast broadband reaches rural communities, citing £250 million investment.
But Mr Thomson fears it would only apply to Shetland’s centres of population such as Lerwick, Brae, Scalloway and Sandwick.