BT has awarded three firms a £26.9 million contract for an ambitious subsea cabling project which will help deliver fast, fibre broadband to the Highlands and Islands.
Specialist vessels will lay 20 fibre optic submarine cables in a precise operation during May to October next year, providing a fibre broadband backbone which will eventually link communities from Kintyre to Orkney.
The massive engineering effort is part of the £146 million investment project launched with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) in March to bring high-speed fibre broadband to communities across the north of Scotland.
Chelmsford-based Global Marine Systems will conduct detailed marine route surveys and supply the cables; Orange Marine, which is based in France but works globally, has been contracted to lay around 400 kilometres of subsea cables, while Hampshire-based A-2-Sea Solutions has been chosen to work onshore connecting the cables to BT’s terrestrial network.
BT has a successful track record of working with all three companies, who were chosen from a competitive tendering process which featured several rival bids.
The longest cable will run for nearly 79km under the Minch from Ullapool to Stornoway, with the Western Isles also benefitting from a second link stretching more than 57km between Carnan on South Uist, and Dunvegan on Skye. (Locations of all 20 cables are listed at the bottom of this release).
Brendan Dick, director, BT Scotland, said: “Quite simply, it’s the biggest subsea engineering project BT has undertaken in UK territorial waters and is the first ever with so many seabed crossings.
“The size of the task presents a massive challenge, not only because of the number of cables involved but also the fact that the work has to be completed within a single, six-month weather window. The pressure is on but we’re confident that in just over a year’s time, the Highlands and Islands will be set to benefit from its own network of underwater, fibre optic cables.”
HIE’s Stuart Robertson, Director of Digital Highlands and Islands, said: “From the outset HIE was determined that this project would reach across our region. The subsea cables are an essential part of bringing high speed broadband to our west coast communities. Their installation is essential in order to reach the 84 per cent coverage target for the region. The fibre network will bring services closer to everyone and will make it easier to provide better broadband to even our hardest to reach areas.”
The subsea work will be carried out by Orange Marine’s cable ship Rene Descartes using the ship’s submersible plough and remotely operated vehicles to bury the double armoured cable in the seabed where seabed sediments allow. The cableship will be backed up by dive support vessels, tugs and a shallow water laying vessel.
The £146m fibre broadband scheme is being led by HIE and delivered by BT. It means that around 84 per cent of Highlands and Islands homes and businesses will have access to fibre broadband by the end of 2016. Unlike other companies, BT offers fibre broadband access to all service providers on an open, wholesale basis, underpinning a competitive market.
The project is by far the most ambitious and challenging rural broadband roll-out BT has undertaken anywhere in the UK. Along with the subsea cables, the company will build more than 800km of new land fibre backbone to complement its existing fibre network, and install hundreds more kilometres of fibre access cable to hundreds of new street cabinets.
The public sector investment towards the contract is £126.4m. It is being delivered through the Scottish Government broadband fund, which incorporates funding from Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), and also includes up to £12m from HIE’s own budget.
BT is investing an additional £19.4 million in the project, on top of its investment in its wider commercial roll-out for the region, taking the total project value to around £146 million.
Coverage levels in all seven local authority areas within the project area will represent a significant step change for fibre broadband in the Highlands and Islands.
BT expects to deploy widespread fibre to the cabinet, which offers broadband speeds of up to 80Mbps* and some Fibre to the Premises.
During the life of the project, BT and HIE will also be assessing new and emerging technology options through a £2.5 million Innovation Fund, with a view to extending faster broadband to the most remote places in the Highlands and Islands.