BT Awards £26.9m Contracts For Scottish Highlands And Islands Subsea Fibre Rollout

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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BT is to work with three companies on laying 250 miles of fibre-optic cables off the west coast of Scotland

BT has awarded three companies a £26.9 million contract to lay 20 fibre-optic cables off the coast of Scotland in an project intended to bring high-speed broadband to the region.

The cable-laying operation, which is to run from May to October next year, is the biggest subsea engineering project BT has undertaken in British territorial waters and is the first ever with so many seabed crossings.

‘Massive challenge’

Loch Long Scottish Highlands © Richard Webb“The size of the task presents a massive challenge, not only because of the number of cables involved but also the fact the work has to be completed within a single, six-month weather window,” said Brendan Dick, Director of BT Scotland.

The project is part of a £146m investment announced in March to bring fibre broadband to the Highlands and Islands. The project, led by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and delivered by BT, is to bring fibre broadband to around 84 percent of the region’s homes and businesses by the end of 2016.

The longest cable, at nearly 50 miles, is to run under the Minch from Ullapool to Stornoway on the Western Isles, with the second-longest running more than 35 miles between Carnan on South Uist and Dunvegan on Sky.

Global Marine Systems is to carry out marine route surveys and supply the cables, with Orange Marine to lay around 250 miles of cables, and A-1-Sea Solutions to work onshore connecting the cables to BT’s terrestrial network.

Subsea digging

The subsea work is to be carried out by Orange Marine’s cable ship Réné Descartes, which will use a submersible plough and remotely operated vehicles to bury the double-armoured cable in the seabed. The cableship will work alongside dive support vessels, tugs and a shallow-water laying vessel.

As part of the plan BT is also planning to lay more than 500 miles of new land fibre backbone to build on its existing fibre network, as well as hundreds of miles of fibre access cable linking to hundreds of new street cabinets.

“The subsea cables are an essential part of bringing high speed broadband to our west coast communities,” said Stuart Robertson, HIE’s director of digital Highlands and Islands, in a statement. “Their installation is essential in order to reach the 84 per cent coverage target for the region. The fibre network will bring services closer to everyone and will make it easier to provide better broadband to even our hardest-to-reach areas.”

The public-sector investment in the project is £126.4m, and is delivered through the Scottish Government’s broadband fund, which includes funding from Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) as well as up to £12m from HIE itself. BT is investing a further £19.4m on top of its wider commercial fibre investments in the area.

BT said it is planning to deploy fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) services in the region, offering speeds of up to 80Mbps, as well as some fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP). The company has set aside a further £2.5m in an Innovation Fund to work with HIE on assessing emerging technologies that could be used to deliver faster broadband to the remotest areas of the Highlands and Islands.

Fibre rollout

In April BT said more than 15 million premises in the UK had access to the Openreach fibre network, covering more than half of all UK homes and businesses. BT claimed at the time that its rollout of fibre was around 17 months ahead of schedule, with 100,000 and 200,000 additional premises added to the network every week.

The company said it was on target to reach its goal of connecting 19 million premises by the end of Spring 2014 and claimed its £2.5 billion investment has ensured the UK is well-placed to have the best broadband in the UK among major European economies by the end of 2015.

In addition to its own fibre investment, BT has also won all of the government funding available under the BDUK programme, which aims to provide fibre access in areas which would not otherwise be served commercially. However, this has come under scrutiny from European regulators, who questioned whether this amounted to state funding before giving the project the all clear.

BT’s competitors have also voiced concerns. TalkTalk chief executive Dido Harding has expressed concerns that competition is not as strong as it is in copper as 95 percent of all consumers take their fibre broadband from either BT or Virgin Media. She has called for the sector to be more heavily regulated by the government.

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