Some of Scotland’s most remote and rural communities are to receive potentially life-changing improvements to their broadband.
The signing of a £384 million contract will enable the delivery of superfast services to homes and businesses across the north to leap forward.
The work will target some of the smallest island communities and will start in the New Year, connectivity minister Paul Wheelhouse confirmed yesterday.
It will involve the laying of 16 new subsea cables, ensuring future-proofed, resilient connections in all island local authorities.
Some of the communities being targeted have been described as among the most challenging anywhere in Europe to link to superfast broadband.
Local politicians have said the current pandemic has highlighted the importance of connectivity to the islands and the extent to which they are lagging behind many other parts of the country.
Mr Wheelhouse stressed the Scottish Government’s commitment to reach 100% of Scotland and the huge impact the rollout could have.
The project, which is being led by BT, is said to be capable of delivering speeds over 30 times faster than the government’s superfast commitment.
Fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) technology will be used for more than 80% of addresses of the contract build.
Mr Wheelhouse said: “The role of digital connectivity in our everyday lives has never been clearer as we tackle the pandemic.
“The contract signature for the north lot, involving funding of £384 million, marks a significant step towards ensuring our 100% commitment is delivered across Scotland, including to some of our most remote and rural communities.
“Scotland has some of the most challenging locations anywhere in Europe for providing telecoms infrastructure and we are taking additional steps to provide superfast access to some of the hardest-to-reach areas.
“More than 80% of the build we are funding will provide full fibre to the premises and speeds of up to one Gigabit per second.
“Complex engineering work to lay 16 new subsea cables will provide resilient connections for our most remote communities and download speeds equal to that experienced in our most urban areas.
“We have also developed plans, in parallel with main infrastructure investment, to ensure our 100% superfast commitment is met with our Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme.
“This will ensure that everyone can access and benefit from this world-leading digital capability.”
Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said there remains much work to be done.
“Welcome though the signing of this contract is, it only represents the end of the procurement phase,” he said.
“Meanwhile, the pandemic has cruelly exposed the extent to which rural and island communities, like Orkney, still lag behind in terms of good broadband coverage.
“With more people having to work, study and try to stay connected at home, this digital divide has grown wider.
“It is vital, therefore, that Scottish Ministers set out clearly and in detail how they expect 100% coverage to be achieved in Orkney.
“They must also recognise the need for local coordination of any roll out plan.
Mr McArthur said it would also be important those areas with the poorest coverage be given priority.
Moray’s SNP MSP Richard Lochhead said Moray had done “really well” out of the Scottish Government’s last superfast broadband rollout.
Nonetheless, he is keen to see continued improvements to fill in what he sees as important gaps in the network.
“There are still too many premises and homes in Moray that are struggling with slow and unreliable connections and those affected are understandably frustrated, so there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure everyone can access faster broadband,” he said.
“I am often contacted by homes and businesses in communities throughout Moray desperate for better connectivity.
“It is great news that finally the contract for the North of Scotland has been signed. This is a big relief.”
BT plc has been contracted to deliver all of the R100 contracts and Openreach will begin survey work in the north early in the New Year.
Openreach managing director Katie Milligan, said: “Broadband has never mattered more and demand for reliable connectivity has never been higher.
“Our network already reaches hundreds of remote and rural communities across the North of Scotland, shaping lives for the better.
“Getting to this point has been long and complex, and the build in the North, with its wild and beautiful land and seascapes, will bring new challenges to test our engineering inventiveness.”