Call to open up ‘secret’ internet link to Highlands

SCOTLAND’S biggest energy firm is facing calls to share a “secret” superfast broadband link it operates between the Highlands and the Central Belt.

The Sunday Post can reveal the controversial Beauly to Denny overhead power line, owned by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN), was built with a fibre optic link strung along the earth wire of the 136-mile route. However, the high-speed internet link is currently only used for internal SSEN communications, such as controlling electricity substations. Highlands Tory MSP Edward Mountain has called for the fibre link to be opened up for commercial use to help people in the north of Scotland who desperately need faster broadband.

Scottish ministers said they were not in a position to order the move as the power line is in private hands but owner SSEN last night it was open to the idea. Mr Mountain said: “Given the facility exists, it’s madness to limit the broadband to such a small pool.

“It’s never been more important for Highland communities to be able to access quick, efficient internet.

“This seems to be a golden opportunity to do just that.

“I realise there would be complications using fibre optic on a power line but we need the Government to be more proactive. It just isn’t good enough to say it is too difficult. They need to find solutions not problems.”

Figures published last month claimed broadband speeds in parts of the Highlands are among the worst in the UK. The survey from the House of Commons Library showed 66% of the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency is not ready to receive speeds of up to 10 Megabits per second which is the minimum required to usefully access the likes of on-line banking.

Only the former mining region of Carmarthen East, in Wales, fares worse. BT disputed the claims saying that around two-thirds of homes and businesses in the Ross, Skye and Lochaber area are receiving superfast broadband. However, the Highlands remains the worst served part of Scotland for broadband which the Scottish Government has pledged to fix by 2021.

An SSEN spokesman said: “In accordance with the Communications (Access to Infrastructure) Regulations 2016, SSEN welcomes inquiries from telecommunications providers regarding the use of the fibre-optic capacity in its new and existing transmission infrastructure, including its section of the Beauly-Denny line.

“Any such access would be dependent on the availability of capacity, securing relevant consents and any operational requirements related to SSEN’s primary responsibility for the safe and reliable delivery of electricity to customers.”

In a letter to Holyrood’s connectivity committee, the rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing, said: “There are a number of factors that impact SSEN’s ability to commercialise this fibre for telecoms deployment, not least maintenance considerations and the potential for power outages to result in the loss of broadband services.

“In light of those factors, and due to the commercial nature of SSEN’s infrastructure, the Scottish Government was not in a position to compel SSEN and BT to reach a commercial arrangement linked to the deployment of the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband Exchange programme.”

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