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U-boat defences deployed to bring broadband to Orkney Islands

A series of causeways built to protect ships at anchor from German U-boats are being pressed into use to bring fibre-optic cables to remote parts of the Orkney Islands

A number of causeways built during the second world war to protect the British fleet at anchor in the Orkney Islands have been pressed into service to help deploy fibre-optic cables to a number of small islands under the £146m Digital Scotland broadband programme, backed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

The famous Churchill Barriers were constructed by Italian prisoners of war on the orders of Winston Churchill following the torpedoing of the battleship HMS Royal Oak by German submarine U-47, causing the loss of 833 lives.

The U-boat was able to infiltrate Scapa Flow – a sheltered anchorage used by the Royal Navy for many years – through Kirk Sound, a gap less than 1km wide between the Mainland and the small island of Lamb Holm, in the early hours of 14 October 1939.

Although the barriers were not actually completed until close to the end of the war, they have remained in situ ever since and today carry the A961 road connecting the islands of Mainland, Lamb Holm, Glims Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay.

The dig along the causeway will bring all four islands in reach of the government-defined 24Mbps superfast broadband service. The village of Burray will be the first to receive the service, with St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay coming online before Christmas 2015.

More than 4,700 homes and businesses on Mainland are already able to access the service, and the use of the Churchill Barriers will extend this by more than 500 properties, said HIE.

“Building a fibre-optic network across the Highlands and Islands presents its own unique stories,” said HIE director of digital Stuart Robertson.

“In Orkney, history is playing its part. The Churchill Barriers have allowed us to run the main network cable from Kirkwall to Holm, to Burray and on to St Margaret’s Hope. For Westray, we laid around 28km of subsea cabling across the Bay of Tuquoy.

“By the end of next year we will have taken access to fibre-optic based broadband in Orkney from zero to at least 76% of premises,” he added.

BT programme manager Robert Thorburn said more than half of the current planned work in Orkney was now complete, with a main fibre spine almost all in place and the focus moving onto enabling more cabinets around the islands.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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