Around 40 people attended a digital forum at the Skeld Hall this morning to hear updates on efforts to improve broadband in rural areas.
But many voiced concerns about shortfalls in internet and mobile coverage.
The forum, organised by Tavish Scott and Alistair Carmichael, followed an Audit Scotland report which showed extending high-speed coverage to rural areas remained a “challenge”.
The Scottish government has set a target to achieve 100 per cent coverage by 2021.
But Mr Scott is sceptical of its ability to follow through that pledge.
This week the isles MSP highlighted correspondence from rural affairs minister Fergus Ewing, which appeared to warn isles communities could find themselves at the “back of the queue” when finding a “superfast solution”.
At today’s forum several points were made regarding the possibility of communities taking on the responsibility of broadband or mobile coverage themselves.
One woman warned a lack of broadband was “killing off” country areas.
Another said she needed to drive her daughter to the library in Lerwick in order for her to complete school work.
And one other woman said the internet shortfall had implications on those relying on a pager service.
Perhaps the last word on broadband should go to the woman who said she had worked in the health service for 30 years.
She declared: “If we dealt with difficult patients last, by the time we got to them they’d be dead.”
Digital director of HIE, Stuart Robertson, said the Audit Scotland report had been, on the whole, positive.
Mr Robertson said there was an “implication” that the isles were going to lose out even to what they had been promised – “which is not the case”.
“As you will well know now the current government has promised to get one hundred per cent superfast coverage by 2021.
“I think it’s fair to say the plans on how to do that, and how to make that possible, is in development.”
I think it’s fair to say the plans on how to do that, and how to make that possible, is in development – STUART ROBERTSON
He said there was a project team working within the Scottish government to look at what was being called R100.
Mr Robertson said discussions needed to take place with industry about where it was rolling out superfast and what its commercial plans were over the next three years.
But Mr Scott insisted too little had been done up until now.
“We are today dealing with people who have not got any coverage at all. So future government money must find a way to deal with that,” the MSP said.
BT programme manager of the Highlands and Islands, Robert Thorburn, spoke about efforts to improve the existing fibre network.
In 2013, the Scottish government and HIE separately contracted BT to extend the network across the country.
“From a phase one perspective we’re in a direct home straight in terms of delivery of what we said we would do,” Mr Thorburn said.
“But we believe there’s lots more to do.”
He added a key concern had been to deliver the “maximum coverage possible” – something he admitted could be controversial at times.
“Yes, we’re in the numbers game, as are the government. So you’ve got to deliver as much as you can with the money available. And that sometimes means not being able to reach a community that’s got nothing today, but actually going to communities who have got a little bit, and you give a little bit more. And you get maximum value for money.
“At the end of the day … we have to demonstrate value for money for the government.”
He said there were approximately 54 per cent of premises which can see speeds of greater than 24 mbps, “which in current government speak is ‘on-track'”.
“From our perspective BT are geared up for delivering targets and pushing the boundaries as much as we can, working with the different groups involved.
“I think if you watch this space in the coming weeks we’ll demonstrate we will go further, and there is more we can do.”
He said eight exchange point “cabinets” would be delivered by the end of the year, adding on to 14 which had been delivered.
Earlier, head of public affairs at O2, Paul James, said the company was upgrading its whole mobile phone network, which would provide improvements for 2G, 3G and 4G.
He said the company was working with Vodafone to improve its network as well.
“We are just about to kick off the upgrade of our network for Shetland. We are upgrading 16 sites, plus putting in two more sites”
Later questioned, he said one of those would be near Lerwick, and one near Sullom Voe.
“We’re working with the council and we have got planning permission for those sites.”
Mr James was challenged on a number of points – notably a shortfall in masts covering the isles, which led to a number of so-called “not-spots”.
He said the problem was one of economics in building those masts.
“There has to be a proper not-spots debate,” he conceded.
Asked about community projects, Mr Robertson said the Scottish government had devised a mobile action plan several months ago, which was aimed at seeking business rate concessions on masts in not-spots areas.
He said a community-owned mast site had been set up in the island of Coll, in the Inner Hebrides.
“The jury is still out on how effective it has been,” he added.
Mr Carmichael said the question of broadband needed to be looked at “holistically”.
“There needs to be a conversation in the islands about how we might need to look at solutions for this for ourselves. I can see a fairly clear roadmap about how that conversation may develop.
“We need not what’s adequate for the moment but what’s going to be good in 10 years time.”