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Police from across Scotland deployed to Shetland as ‘major incident’ declared after phone lines and internet cut

View of Lerwick
Communication lines to Shetland were cut due to a damaged subsea cable. Photo of Lerwick by Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Shetlanders could be left without any form of communication for two days after an underseas cable was damaged.

The subsea cable connecting Shetland with the Scottish mainland was damaged overnight, rendering phones and internet useless.

The cause of the damage has not yet been confirmed, but Faroese Telecom has said it suspects fishing vessels were involved.

Engineers are working to find a fix, but the emergency situation could last until Saturday, according to council chief executive Maggie Sandison. She has been meeting with emergency service representatives today.

It is understood some services started to come back on for islanders from 4pm but problems continue to persist for others.

Meanwhile, the Scottish First Minister described the outage as a “very serious situation” for Shetland.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman added: “The Scottish Government’s resilience operation has been activated and is in regular contact with the local authority and relevant agencies who are all working to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

“We stand ready to provide any support required – ministers have spoken with the local authority and MSP and will continue to monitor the situation closely until it is resolved.

“We are pressing telcoms companies, and the UK Government for firm timelines on restoration as soon as possible.”

Police officers have stepped up patrols for anyone among the 23,000 population who needs help. A major incident has been declared with officers and vehicles being deployed from across Scotland.

The subsea cable connects Shetland and Orkney to the mainland.

They are liaising with fire crews and Coastguard teams to get more resources out to the islands.

Police are also encouraging local residents to check on elderly or vulnerable relatives, neighbours and friends regularly amid concern assistance alarms may also not be operating correctly.

A BT Group spokeswoman said: “Due to a break in a third-party subsea cable connecting Shetland with the Scottish mainland, some phone, broadband and mobile services are affected.

“Engineers are working to divert services via other routes as soon as possible and we’ll provide further updates. Our external subsea provider is also looking to restore their link quickly.

“Anyone who needs to call 999 should try their landline or their mobile, even if they don’t have signal from their own mobile provider.

“We’re sorry for any inconvenience.”

How are Shetland residents coping?

Banks in Shetland are unable to give customers money while local shops can only accept cash.

It is understood transport services such as Logainair and Northlink Ferries are unable to let islanders book new journeys using card payments.

Police have announced an emergency hub has been set up at the Tesco car park in Lerwick.

As a result, those living in outer island communities will be left the most isolated by the outage.

It is understood residents are gathering in some Lerwick businesses unaffected by the outage to get online.

Disruptions to services

It is understood some residents may have mobile signal depending on their carrier and Shetland Broadband services are unaffected.

However, some shops are unable to accept card payments while cash machines are out of order.

Additionally, the Shetland Islands Council website has been down for several hours today.

Highlands and Islands Airports confirmed Sumburgh Airport is open despite the loss of all internet and mobile connections.

Some cash machines are not working on the island.

Northlink Ferry services from Aberdeen to the islands have not been disrupted, according to their website.

Repairs to another cable, connecting Shetland and Faroe, are also ongoing after it was damaged last week.

Páll Vesturbú, the head of infrastructure for Faroese Telecom, said the damage was probably caused by a fishing vessel.

He told the BBC: “We expect it will be fishing vessels that damaged the cable but it is very rare that we have two problems at the same time.

“The damage is affecting most of the telecom services to Shetland. There are some services still working but we will try to establish more services during the day if that’s possible.”

‘Not acceptable’

Isles MP Alistair Carmichael has raised the issue in parliament after being told it could take up to two days before services are replaced.

MP Alistair Carmichael

Mr Carmichael said: “My constituents in Shetland have very limited access to telephone and broadband services with all the implications this brings for the emergency services, let alone families and businesses.”

Mr Carmichael asked the Secretary of State for a full statement on the incident, as well as to investigate the resilience of services on the island in the longer term.

He added: “For a community of this size to be left without telecommunications for this long is not acceptable.

“Thanks to police, coastguard and other emergency services for stepping up quickly and effectively to minimise the impact and give clear information to those affected. I will be in Shetland from this evening and hope to meet with local partners and emergency services.”

‘Extremely limited telephone and broadband’

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart is in “limited contact” with the Scottish Government to keep updated on what is being done to resolve the incident.

She said: “I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to all the engineers and emergency services who have stepped up so quickly to try and resolve this disruption and reassure residents.

MSP Beatrice Wishart. Photo by Ken Jack/Getty Images.

“My constituents are understandably concerned by the news this morning. There is an extremely limited telephone and broadband service, which has huge repercussions for families and businesses across the islands.

“This kind of disruption points to the fundamental vulnerability of our current island infrastructure. We need long-term changes to create a resilient service that can guarantee residents connectivity, reliability and safety.”

The Scottish Government has been asked what practical and logistical support it is providing during the Shetland outage.

Extra police patrols

Superintendent David Ross explained extra resources from across Scotland would be deployed from Friday and will remain as long as necessary.

He said: “We are advising people not to make non-urgent calls for the time being so that all available lines can be used for emergencies if required.

“In an emergency the public should try calling 999 on their landline or mobile. If that does not work you should go to your nearest police station, ambulance station, fire station or hospital to report an emergency or try flagging down an emergency services vehicle that does not have its blue lights on.

“Officers are patrolling in vehicles and on foot and we are working with partners to make additional resources available.

“I would ask that relatives and neighbours of elderly or vulnerable people check on them regularly. Assistance alarms may not be operating correctly.”

How long will it take to fix?

When the subsea power cable linking the Western Isles to the mainland was damaged in 2020, it took 10 months to lay a new cable.

In the meantime, residents received electricity from diesel generators. Replacing the 20-mile link cost energy firm SSEN £28million.

The Shetland cable carries optical fibre used to provide phone and internet connections.

The islands are about 130 miles from the Scottish mainland so the connection is considerably longer than the one to the Western Isles.

Ian Brown, a partner with Lerwick-based internet provider Shetland Broadband, told the BBC he became aware of a problem just after midnight on Thursday when his home broadband went off.

He said the north cable was broken on October 15 in a clean break, whereas the southern one was not a clean break as there are around 100 fibres in the cable, some of which hadn’t been broken.

Shetland Broadband is still operational because the fibres it uses were not damaged.

Mr Brown added the impact ranged from minor inconvenience for islanders to disruption to businesses and local NHS services that rely on their online connection.

Another example included difficulties delivering 2,000 parcels to Shetland as they were unable to scan them.

Mr Brown stressed it isn’t clear if the cable was “hooked up by a ship or lifted and caught by the currents” describing the event as “very rare.”