In 2006/7 Shetland Islands Council took the decision to make telecommunications a priority area for development. At that time Shetland had very unreliable telecoms connections to the rest of the world. All traffic went over multi-hop microwave links which frequently suffered from weather and atmospheric changes. The Council recognised that telecommunications and broadband in particular are vital for the economic health of Shetland.
At that time, telecommunications in Shetland suffered from two key problems, the first historically being reliability and the network repeatedly broke down. On one occasion failure of the microwave link to the mainland resulted in a total blackout of telecoms which affected emergency services, the hospital, local shops, banks, the Post Office and even forced the closure of the main airport.
The second problem was the cost of providing telecoms in Shetland. For example, BT operates a system of distance-based tariffs which is dependent on the distance from a BT connection point. The closest connection point to Shetland is Aberdeen and this means that the cost of buying a service in the islands can be as much as 20 times the cost of the equivalent service in Aberdeen.
Following a number of failed attempts to set up a consortium of business and Government agencies to install a fibre optic cable between Faroe, Shetland, Orkney and the UK Mainland, the Faroese decided to install their own fibre cable in 2006, SHEFA2. Up until this time the Faroese had relied on a single fibre optic link, which connected their islands to the north coast of Scotland at Dunnet Bay in Caithness.
SHEFA2 crosses Shetland and Shetland Islands Council began a process of actively encouraging the National Telecommunications Service Providers to connect the islands to the Faroese cable. Nothing came of these attempts and in December 2009 the Council undertook a project to connect Shetland to the Faroese cable itself. The Council provided £1.1m of funding and was awarded £400,000 of European Regional Development Fund money to complete the development. The Shetland Telecom Project was established and is currently operating a resilient fibre optic ring, which connects to the Faroese cable at two points.
Using a local contractor, the fibre network deployment has been innovative and uses a method of instalment called microtrenching. This involves cutting a small slot in the road and placing a 96-core fibre optic cable in a duct at the bottom of the slot as can be seen in the following video of the cable being laid.
This network ensures that Shetland has, for the first time, reliable, high capacity, affordable high speed internet access between the islands and the rest of the UK.
The network is 100% owned by Shetland Islands Council, can be used to provide connectivity wherever it is required and allows Shetland people, businesses and communities to be innovative and creative in its use.
The Council approved the ‘Digital Shetland’ strategy 2014-2017, which aims to focus on how consumers and businesses can fully benefit from the advantages of improved telecommunications. Extending the network further will ensure the availability of backhaul connections for additional Community Schemes to provide higher speed broadband to homes and businesses, as well as provide services to Council operations.
The network is ‘open access’ which means that communications providers can extend their services to end users.