The UK’s most challenging rural broadband project is taking another step forward today (Thursday 31 July) as engineers start work on the country’s longest publicly funded subsea fibre connection linking the Outer Hebrides with the mainland.
The work forms a vital part of a £146m public investment to create a huge 1200km land and subsea fibre network across the region. It will bring fibre based broadband to many parts of the Highlands and Islands for the first time.
By the end of 2016, more than 200,000 homes and businesses will be able to benefit as a result of the project and BT’s commercial roll-out. Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) is leading on the partnership investment, along with the Scottish Government, Broadband Delivery UK and private sector partner BT.
Local community representatives joined project partners as the cable was brought ashore from specialist cable ship the Rene Descartes, operated by Orange Marine, which will now make the journey to the mainland, laying the cable along the seabed.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “It’s fantastic news that this network is being developed to bring the benefits of high quality digital connectivity to our island communities, many for the first time.
“This is an important step towards ensuring that Scotland has world-class digital connectivity by 2020. Our investment, and that of our partners in the project, will extend access to superfast broadband across Scotland. This will be a key factor in ensuring Scotland’s long-term economic
Stuart Robertson, HIE’s Director of Digital for Highlands and Islands, commented: “This step is a vital part in the rollout of a network which will change the face of broadband services in the Highlands and Islands. Without public sector support, fibre based broadband would have reached around 21% of premises in the Highlands and Islands, centred mostly in higher population areas.
“Our project aims to boost coverage dramatically and is reaching out to areas like the Outer Hebrides where there were no commercial plans. It is a hugely challenging and ambitious project and we will continue to work to bring the social and economic benefits of faster, reliable broadband to as many people as possible.”
Over the coming months BT will be visible across the region as they carry out the huge engineering feat to develop the fibre network, upgrade local exchanges and create the local fibre networks which bring services to homes and businesses.
Brendan Dick, director, BT Scotland, said: “This is an historic day for the people of the Western Isles as our subsea cable is landed at Stornoway and fibre broadband in the isles begins turning into reality.
“The cablelayer Rene Descartes will spend the next week laying and ploughing the cable into the seabed across the Minch before landing it at Ullapool, where it will be hooked up to our mainland fibre backbone.
“This 79km cable may be the longest one we are laying but it’s just one part of the huge engineering jigsaw that we have to complete before we can go live with fibre in the Isles.”
On the Outer Hebrides more than 100km of land based backbone is to be built between Stornoway in the North and Carnan in the south. In subsea, as well as the Ullapool to Stornoway cable, a second link will stretch more than 57km between Carnan on South Uist, and Dunvegan on Skye. In addition there will be island to island subsea cables from Lochmaddy to Leverburgh, Lochboisdale to Eriskay, and Eriskay to North Bay in Barra.
All of this work prepares the way for the next stage which includes provision of fibre cabinets that connect homes and businesses to fibre broadband. This will be in a phased approach during 2015 completing by the end of 2016.
Local councillor, Alasdair Macleod, who is Chair of Sustainable Development at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, said: “The rollout of high speed fibre broadband to the Hebrides has been eagerly awaited and is hugely welcome news.
“High speed digital connectivity will bring many benefits to island residents and businesses and enhance the economic viability and sustainability of our area. Businesses in the area are at a severe disadvantage if they do not have access to modern technology. High speed digital connectivity is essential in the modern era to ensure that our communities are well placed to take advantage of opportunities created by this new, exciting development.”
Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey, said: “This fantastic news marks a new chapter in the remarkable transformation of broadband in Scotland. We understand how important access to superfast broadband is, which is why the UK Government is investing over £100m in broadband in Scotland.
“The widespread access to superfast broadband that our roll-out will deliver will provide a tremendous boost to the Scottish economy.”
The Crown Estate manages leasing of the cables and pipelines in UK territorial waters. Ronnie Quinn, Scotland lead on Energy and Infrastructure at The Crown Estate, said: “From our work with the islands and across remote areas of Scotland we know that this project has the potential to deliver lasting benefits that will help communities and businesses to thrive. The smooth and speedy progress is a real success story for all those involved - HIE, BT, Scottish Government and The Crown Estate - and we look forward to continuing that close working through to delivery.”