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Great leap forward for internet users in West Burrafirth

The new mast which will give West Burrafirth internet users a much faster connection.

Click to enlarge Residents in West Burrafirth are set to enjoy among the fastest domestic internet connections in Shetland. Fed up with inaction from big telecoms companies, members of the community decided to take matters into their own hands.

Wednesday will see the official switch-on of a scheme which involved installing a wireless broadband link at Engamoor. It means web users browsing experience will be up to 150 times faster. The small West Side settlement s good news was greeted warmly by isles MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott.

Both said the action should serve as a warning to internet service providers to buck up their ideas when it comes to serving remote parts of the country. West Burrafirth Community Broadband Group (WBCBG) made an approach to Shetland Broadband as it sought to resolve the area s slow internet connection speeds. After awards for all lottery funding was secured, Shetland Broadband designed and built the scheme.

It will result in the connection speed increasing from around 160Kb to around 25Mb per second. WBCBG chairman John White s attempts to run his bus firm from an office in West Burrafirth have been hindered for years by a slow internet connection. Five years ago he shared his frustrations with this newspaper at the length of time it took for him to send and receive documents when applying for EU funding.

As recently as September he told visiting BT management that the community s connection speed was woefully inadequate. Mr White said: We are really pleased that we have been able to get the funding and infrastructure in place to ensure our community can access superfast broadband speeds. Shetland Broadband has been invaluable with its expertise in making this project a reality.

WBCBG also singled out SIC community work officer Mick Clifton for his assistance in applying for funding. Shetland Broadband manager Ian Brown said it was an excellent project to be involved in and he hopes to be able to replicate it for other Shetland communities. The new wireless broadband link will provide much faster speeds because it operates through radio-transmitting antennae and receivers located on masts in Lerwick and West Burrafirth.

Previously residents relied on phone lines which, due to their distance from the telephone exchange, were unable to provide a good service. The West Burrafirth installation is powered by energy from a small wind turbine. Its new link is connected to the fibre optic cable linking Shetland with Faroe and the Scottish mainland.

Shetland Telecom, set up by the SIC to improve access to digital technology, believes there is potential to extend the link in the future, enabling surrounding areas to access and benefit from the faster connection. A similar system was set up in Fetlar and Vidlin as part of an SIC pilot scheme, but West Burrafirth is the first community group to get connected to superfast broadband. Mr Carmichael applauded the WBCBG for its initiative: Their drive and desire not to be left behind when it comes to broadband provision is a fantastic model for other communities in Shetland to follow.

This will also act as a warning to the large internet service providers. If rural communities continue to miss out on service upgrades we can expect similar projects to fill the gap that has been left. Mr Scott said improved internet speeds had not reached most outlying parts of Shetland, so such projects were real steps forward .

No house or business in Shetland should be without a better service, he said.

Otherwise the tens of millions being poured into broadband by both UK and Scottish governments won t be working.

Any new funds and initiatives should help the areas who need it most and West Burrafirth certainly falls into that category.

'Ditch Witch' carves out future of superfast broadband in Shetland …

'Ditch Witch' carves out future of superfast broadband in Shetland ...

Click on image to enlarge. Work on laying a cable to enable superfast broadband for businesses and households is ready to begin, using a Ditch Witch machine which was successfully tested out at Gremista today. A fibre optic connection will be laid along the A970 road between the south of Lerwick and Hoswick, with work due to get underway at Sound early next week.

Contractor Tulloch Developments hopes to have 13 miles-worth of cable laid beneath the road by late March or into April, depending on the weather. It is hoped the fibre optic network will transform communications between Shetland and the wider world and help attract new businesses to the isles. The revolutionary technique being employed is much cheaper and more environmentally friendly than traditional methods.

Tulloch Developments invested 55,000 in the Ditch Witch, the only machine of its kind in the UK. It is essentially a mini tractor with a circular saw attached which slices through the road surface. The SIC decided to make its own 1.1 million investment to hook up to Faroese Telecom s SHEFA2 cable, having become fed up with the inertia of telecoms giant BT.

The company s existing microwave link is slow and frequently disrupted, causing major frustration as recently as last week for many households and businesses. Shetland Telecom, an arms-length organisation with two full-time SIC staff, was created in late 2009 and four months ago the local authority attracted 365,000 in European funding to support the project. The first part of the cable is being laid between Lerwick and Hoswick, creating a fibre optic network which will give private telecoms firms such as Shetland Broadband, BT and Cable & Wireless the opportunity to offer superfast speeds to their customers as early as the summer.

The SIC may step in and offer a direct service to customers in the event of market failure. Tulloch Developments has developed the micro trenching technique in conjunction with council roads department engineers. It involves the Ditch Witch machine cutting a 20mm slot in the road surface to a depth of around 100mm.

The cable is then laid with foam packing and the hole will be filled in with concrete and tar on top. Shetland Telecom s Guy Smith explained this was around five times cheaper, taking the project from being prohibitively expensive to potentially cost-saving for the council. The old cable was 110mm wide, dug 600mm deep into a 200mm-wide trench, he explained.

You are looking at doing about 20 metres a day. It shows Shetland as being quite innovative, forward-thinking and dynamic. Later in 2011, the loop will be completed by installing a second cable running through Scalloway, Trondra and Burra, with a submarine cable to be laid underneath Clift Sound across to Maywick.

The second cable is designed to improve the network s resilience, hopefully putting an end to the spate of communications disruptions to which many islanders have become accustomed. When the cable was first laid in 2007, BT refused to invest in joining Shetland to the Faroese link even though it already crosses the isles from Maywick to Hoswick en route to Orkney and Banff. Councillors repeatedly criticised the company s failure to increase the quality and reliability of bandwidth connections, despite it having leased capacity on the cable.

Development committee vice-chairman Alastair Cooper told The Shetland Times it would initially allow the SIC to put high speed communications into its own buildings including 11 schools, its port at Scalloway and care centre in Levenwick. In that sense, the 1.1 million investment should pay for itself within a decade. But potentially more significant is the avenues it will open up for existing private firms, and the opportunity to attract new businesses such as Dingwall-based IT firm Alchemy Plus, which plans to build a 12 million data centre in Lerwick.

We ve always been at the back end of every telecom upgrade in the UK and the world, said Mr Cooper. This could actually take us to the forefront for the first time. He continued: We re like any other rural community.

When the business case goes in front of the telecoms board, the payback is too far out in the future and it doesn t stack up in financial terms. The real benefit is that we will enable the private sector to move into Shetland and provide the services they re providing in an urban area because they won t have had the capital cost. The project has been a labour of love for economic development official Marvin Smith, who has been working on how to improve broadband for several years.

He said the next step would be transferring the benefits to every remote area of Shetland. He said: The beauty is that community buildings can be used as the digital village pump , the government s idea that you get fibre as close to the communities as possible and then we look at different solutions from that. In the same way they got together to sort out marinas, district heating schemes, they could come together as community interest groups and deploy their own fibre, or wireless pick a solution for their own community.

Investment to roll the cable out across Shetland could come from central government, telecoms firms, the council or a combination of all three.

A report is being prepared for the next meeting of the development committee, though Mr Cooper acknowledges that in the current financial climate it is not something the SIC can do by itself: Sitting here today, we have the vision but we don t have the money.