After ending 2023 with broadband network traffic rising to unprecedented levels and hitting the halfway mark in its nationwide plan to reach 25 million premises with gigabit connectivity by the end of 2026, the UK’s leading broadband provider, Openreach, has now announced a deployment representing the furthest distance it has transmitted a continuous full-fibre signal anywhere in the UK.
The company has now brought its full-fibre broadband network to Fair Isle, off Scotland’s north coast. The subsea cable, built almost two years ahead of schedule, stretches 68 miles from the Shetland to Orkney Islands, with Fair Isle reached by a spur line. A post office and shop are among businesses which are already connected, and all premises on the island can now order the service.
The project has been funded through the Scottish government’s £404.1m Reaching 100% (R100) programme, plus £17.4m from the UK government. R100 aims to take fibre networks to Scotland’s most rural areas and hard-to-reach properties.
Openreach Scottish infrastructure upgrades were currently ongoing from the shores of Loch Leven to island communities such as Lismore and Jura, with the R100 build due to start in places like Pitcaple in Aberdeenshire, Hillside in Angus, Ballachulish and Cromarty in Highland, and Birsay in Orkney.
Installations were carefully planned on the National Trust for Scotland-protected island, which is home to rare nesting birds and contains habitats of scientific and conservation value.
In the deployment, signals are transmitted over 100km to islanders, with the fibre starting its journey at a headend, in Lerwick Exchange, and then passing through a digital Repeater, in Sumburgh, 37km away, which amplifies the light signal. That allows it to travel to its destination in Fair Isle, more than 75km away, using the new subsea fibre cable between Shetland and the island.
Once ashore, the fibre is connected into a sub-tended headend which in turn boosts the optical signal out into the community, providing all 51 occupied premises on the island with what are described as transformational ultrafast speeds. Previously, islanders had to make do with just 0.5 Mbps.
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In what it said was a world first, Openreach had to deploy what it called innovative engineering to boost the signal strength. “Regular fibre signals just couldn’t go the distance, so we had to get creative with some world-first engineering to transmit life-changing ultrafast broadband over 100 kilometres to islanders,” said Openreach chief engineer for Scotland Fraser Rowberry.
“We had to do everything differently on Fair Isle, from planning around bird nesting seasons to setting up flat-packed cabins for our crew. A big shout-out to the people of Fair Isle for being so welcoming to our team … Now, they’re connected to the world in a whole new way.”
Scottish Parliament wellbeing economy secretary Neil Gray said: “I am delighted that we have achieved digital connectivity for Fair Isle almost two years earlier than planned. Through our R100 commitment to tackle some of the hardest-to-access terrain in the country, we are improving the educational and life opportunities available to young people across Scotland.
“This innovative step forward for engineering ensures children on Fair Isle are not left behind,” he added. “We are committed to invest further in our digital connectivity … because we know that by supporting remote working and rural businesses – from Fair Isle jumpers to tourism – we can help to build an island economy which is fair, green and prosperous.”