Work started to create Scottish islands fibre broadband network

The biggest fibre cable laying project undertaken in the UK in recent years has begun on the West Coast of Scotland to deliver superfast broadband to the Western Isles.

Thousands of homes and businesses are set to benefit from the publicly funded digital network being built to bring world class connectivity to Scotland. The subsea cabling forms a vital part of the £410m Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband initiative. When complete it will bring fibre based broadband to many parts of Scotland for the first time.

The cabling forms part of the £146m Highlands and Islands project being led by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). Funding partners include the Scottish Government, HIE, and Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK). BT, the selected private sector partner who is rolling out the open access fibre network, is investing £19 million in the area.

As it progresses, the subsea project aims to deliver around 400kms of cables to link island communities.

Managed by BT, the deep sea 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.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Today marks another important milestone for the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband partnership.

“It’s fantastic news that this network will open up the benefits of high quality digital connectivity to our island communities, making them more economically viable in the long term.

“This is one of the most ambitious broadband infrastructure projects ever to have been undertaken and will see 95 per cent of premises in Scotland covered by 2017/18. The scale of the challenge of delivering fibre broadband into rural Scotland outstrips any other part of the UK and indeed, much of Europe.

“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 prosperity.”

Stuart Robertson, HIE’s Director of Digital Highlands and Islands, said: “Thousands of homes and businesses in island communities will benefit from the huge public investment being made to roll out fibre based broadband across the Highlands and Islands. Its introduction will change how people can use technology and access the internet, opening up new ways of living, learning and working.

“The current three year project is made up of two parts – the first to create the fibre network which will bring better services closer to all, the second part is to bring broadband to as many homes and businesses as the current technology and budget will allow. The creation of this hugely ambitious land and subsea network is vital in reaching communities which could never have hoped to receive fibre broadband as part of commercial roll-out.”

There has been significant consultation in relation to this challenging project. Throughout the programme the team will liaise with Marine Scotland to ensure the hugely complex sub-sea programme is carried out in a way that respects the environment and the users of the sea.

The first sections of work have already been completed. Early routes where subsea cable are being deployed include Largs, Cumbrae, Cowal, Mull, Oban, Ardgour and Corran. The cableship will be backed up by dive support vessels, tugs and a shallow water laying vessel.

Support vessels carrying out work include the MCS Ailsa and the Coastal Chariot.

Brendan Dick, director, BT Scotland, said: “This is a momentous occasion for BT as we embark on the biggest subsea engineering project BT has undertaken in UK waters. It’s also a first for the number of seabed crossings we’re tackling in a single operation.

“It’s a massive test of engineering ingenuity, so we are keeping everything crossed for stable weather and a fair wind to allow sure and steadfast progress.

“It’s also an exciting time, not only for BT and its partners, but also for island residents and the businesses they run. I look forward with anticipation to people in the Islands reaping the benefits of their very own network of underwater, fibre optic cables.”

Communications Minister Ed Vaizey said: “We are connecting some of the UK’s most remote communities to the digital world thanks to this hugely ambitious feat of engineering.

“In total 400km of cable will bring high-speed broadband and all its benefits and opportunities to these island communities.”

The Crown Estate, which manages leasing of the cables and pipelines in UK territorial waters, granted the seabed rights which will allow the installation of these nationally significant broadband connections. The organisation worked closely with Scottish Government, HIE and BT to help develop this opportunity, recognising the unique nature of the project and the benefits it will bring communities in the region.

Ronnie Quinn, Scotland lead on Energy and Infrastructure at The Crown Estate, said: “The Crown Estate is pleased to have been involved in this important infrastructure project and we congratulate Scottish Government, HIE and their partners on the progress on delivering broadband services to some of the remotest parts of Scotland. From our work with Scottish islands we know that this project has the potential to deliver lasting social and economic benefits and we very much look forward to continuing to work to help realise these opportunities.”

The Highlands and Islands fibre network will provide a significant step change in coverage levels in all seven local authority areas within the project area. Services to homes and businesses are in the main to be provided from the network via fibre to the cabinet, which offers broadband speeds of up to 80Mbps*, and also through some Fibre to the Premises.

The current project won’t reach everyone, and additional help and advice is available from Community Broadband Scotland for those out of reach.