Better Connectivity For Shetland Homes And Businesses

by Alastair Hamilton -

Faster broadband and better mobile phone services will soon be available to many people in Shetland, thanks to public and private investment.

Shetland folk have always been concerned about communication. In the 1970s and 1980s, CB radio was hugely popular in the islands and there have been other pioneers. BBC Radio Shetland is hard-wired into island life and the islands have long had one of the UK’s smallest, yet technically sophisticated, independent local radio stations, SIBC.

When it comes to broadband, the picture is still developing and, as in other parts of the UK, speeds vary. For those who are already connected to one of the green roadside cabinets served by new fibre-optic cables, speeds of up to 80mbps are promised. Many customers in Lerwick and some other areas are receiving over 24mbps. However – because the last mile or two of cable is copper, not fibre – the speed does drop rapidly with increasing distance, sometimes beyond the point (between 2mbps and 1.5mbps) where large files take much longer to download and the BBC’s iPlayer gives up the struggle. Where small numbers of customers are spread over a wide area, more cabinets are needed to provide an acceptable service, pushing up costs.

Many customers in Lerwick and some other areas are receiving over 24mbps

However, the improvement of local connectivity is only one part of the picture. Until a few years ago, Shetland’s link with the outside world was provided by microwave radio signals which weren’t completely reliable. Shetland Islands Council decided to make a major investment in the basic infrastructure needed for a 21st century network, and set up Shetland Telecom to install it. Fibre-optic cables, buried in micro-trenches, were installed under main roads and two connections were made to the undersea fibre-optic cable that passes through Shetland on its way from the Faroe Islands to Scotland. The project cost £1.5m, of which £400,000 came from the European Regional Development Fund, and the result is a robust, high-speed network that is available to other operators.

To bring better broadband to individual customers, investment has also been made by the Scottish Government, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and BT. Over the past year or so, teams of contractors have been extending the fibre network and installing new cabinets, and that work is continuing. It won’t offer a complete solution, but should make a significant difference for many. For those who will have to wait longer for an acceptable service, a grant of £350 is available towards the cost of installing satellite broadband.

...teams of contractors have been extending the fibre network...

There’s been progress with mobile phone coverage too, and more investment is planned. Most parts of Shetland have a basic 2G signal, though coverage varies, depending on which of the four networks the customer is using; there are still a few “not-spots”. Similarly, 3G coverage varies, but three of the four networks serve Lerwick and some other areas and the fourth, Vodafone, has been installing short-range 3G cells serving some remoter communities.

However, mobile phone coverage is about to improve dramatically, thanks to the award by the Home Office of a national contract for the emergency services, which specifies a 4G service across the UK. It will enable (say) an ambulance paramedic to send photos or video of a casualty to a hospital, either to receive advice or to provide advance notice of the kind of treatment required. Firefighters could be sent plans showing the interior layout of a building.

The emergency services contract was awarded to EE and, speaking at a Shetland Digital Forum meeting in Lerwick in March, their representative said that the installation of the 4G network would begin this summer and should see coverage in almost every corner of the isles by 2017. Up to 15 new masts may be required.

Are there any downsides from all this? Well, if mobile phone coverage is complete, the BBC’s Shetland scriptwriters will need to find a new plot device. Parents who presently have the full attention of their teenagers may find themselves losing out to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And the prospects of opening up a niche holiday market for so-called ‘digital retreats’ – where people would be able to escape technology – might be a little less bright.

On the whole, though, it feels like progress.

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