Superfast subsea links ready to revolutionise way of life on Scottish Islands

Digital Scotland is celebrating the completion of a once-in-a-generation subsea telecoms project which brings faster fibre broadband another step closer for many of Scotland’s most remote communities.

Minister hails completion of ‘most complex ever’ underwater engineering feat

Digital Scotland is celebrating the completion of a once-in-a-generation subsea telecoms project which brings faster fibre broadband another step closer for many of Scotland’s most remote communities.

Today (Thursday 4 December) the £410m Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband project partners are in Millport, on the Isle of Cumbrae, to mark the successful installation of 250 miles of fibre optic cabling across a record-breaking 20 seabed crossings. It’s been hailed as the most complex sub-sea engineering challenge ever undertaken by BT in UK waters.

Millport is one of 40 island and mainland locations, stretching from Orkney to Kintyre, which form essential links for a massive fibre network being built to bring high-speed fibre broadband to 84% of the Highlands and Islands by the end of 2016.

The £26.9m subsea project is part of the £146m Digital Highlands and Islands rollout which will make faster, more reliable services available to more than 150,000 premises across the region’s mainly rural communities for the first time.

Deputy First Minister, John Swinney said: “Today marks an incredibly important step in the completion of the most complex ever underwater engineering that Scotland has seen. It is a hugely impressive technological feat that work has been completed in such a short timescale.

“In the coming months, thanks to the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband Programme, many island communities will start to benefit from fibre broadband – that otherwise would not have received coverage. The rollout of superfast broadband will allow many households across our islands to connect to fibre broadband services for the first time, as well as giving businesses the opportunity to enhance their services.”

Work will now continue on land to complete the main network, linking the subsea connections together. The first island communities to connect directly as a result of the new subsea links will go live during Spring next year. Local people will have access to fibre broadband speeds of up to 80Mbps, around ten times faster than the current top speeds available on most Scottish islands, many of which are currently connected by radio links.

The subsea roll-out work started in July, with the contract carried out for BT by French specialist cable laying firm Orange Marine. Their ship, the 14,000-tonne Rene Descartes, with its submersible plough, remotely operated vehicles and other support vessels, has become a common sight in the north and west coastlines as it has powered on from location to location burying the double-armoured cable in the seabed.

As well as the subsea work, the onshore activity to connect the cables to BT’s terrestrial network has been carried out by Hampshire-based A-2-Sea Solutions.

The longest subsea route is nearly 50 miles long under the Minch from Ullapool to Stornoway, with the shortest covering the one mile leap between Ardgour on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula and Onich, south of Fort William.

The Digital Scotland rollout consists of two projects – one covering the Highlands and Islands area and the other covering the rest of Scotland, with more than 750,000 premises to benefit across the country. The Digital Highlands and Islands project is being led in the region by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), with funding partners the Scottish Government, Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), HIE itself and private sector company BT, which is also delivering the contract on the ground.

HIE’s director of regional development Carroll Buxton commented: “Completion of the subsea cabling work is a crucial step in building a network which will dramatically change access to technology across our region for decades to come. This is a legacy network for the Highlands and Islands and for Scotland, opening up next generation broadband for homes and businesses whether they are in urban, or remote and rural Scotland.

“The public investment in this project will make a difference to every part of our region. It will increase coverage from the one in five who would have received better broadband through commercial roll-out to 84% of premises in our area. And we won’t stop there, we will continue to look at how this network can help all our communities access and make the best use of faster more reliable services.”

UK Government Digital Economies Minster Ed Vaizey said: “An additional 150,000 Scottish homes and businesses can now access superfast broadband as a result of our nationwide rollout so far, and we’re reaching an additional 40,000 premises across the UK every week. The completion of the subsea work is a major milestone which will mean that island communities are not left behind as we continue to transform the digital landscape of Scotland.”

Brendan Dick, BT Scotland director, confirmed that the Highlands and Islands broadband roll-out is by far the most ambitious and challenging BT has undertaken anywhere in the UK.

He said: “This has been the most complex subsea project BT has tackled in UK waters, as well as being the largest number of seabed cables laid in a single weather window. I’m so proud of the endeavour shown by the whole team to overcome the technical and environmental challenges.

“This underwater spider’s web of fibre optic cables is set to deliver a seismic shift in communications for Scotland’s island communities, bringing them in closer touch with the rest of the world than ever before.”

Councillor Marie Burns, Cabinet Member for Economy & Employment with North Ayrshire Council, said: "The completion of the sub-sea cabling is a significant milestone in bringing superfast broadband to North Ayrshire's most remote communities.

"The move to fast fibre broadband will make a significant difference, particularly to our local businesses. It will transform the way our local firms do business at home and abroad, it will provide them with a competitive edge to grow their business and access new markets."

Ronnie Quinn, Scotland lead on Energy and Infrastructure at The Crown Estate, said: “It's great to see such a significant phase of this project being completed, taking remote communities and businesses one step closer to being connected. From our work with the islands and across remote areas of Scotland we know that this project has the potential to deliver lasting benefits in those areas. The project’s smooth and speedy progress is a real success story for all those involved."

Overall the Highlands and Islands project is laying more than 500 miles of new land fibre backbone to complement BT’s existing fibre network, as well as hundreds more to create the local access which brings services to homes and businesses.

With more than 30,000 premises in Moray, Highland, Shetland and Argyll already benefitting from access to fibre based next generation broadband through the project, work continues apace. New locations for upgrades are announced quarterly as detailed survey work is completed.

Across Scotland, more than 150,000 premises now have access to fibre broadband thanks to the Digital Scotland roll-out. Including BT’s commercial rollout, more than 1.4 million premises can now get connected to high-speed fibre services on the Openreach network, which is used by dozens of service providers offering competitive prices.

Notes to editors

The public sector investment towards the Highlands and Islands contract is £126.4m. It is being delivered through the Scottish Government broadband fund, which incorporates funding from Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), and also includes up to £12m from HIE’s own budget.

BT is investing an additional £19.4 million in the project, on top of its investment in its wider commercial roll-out for the region, taking the total project value to around £146 million.

Every part of the region is important and the majority of premises in all local authority areas within the project area will be reached. This represents a significant step change for fibre broadband in the Highlands and Islands.

BT expects to deploy widespread fibre to the cabinet, which offers broadband speeds of up to 80Mbps and some Fibre to the Premises.

During the life of the project, BT and HIE will also be assessing new and emerging technology options through a £2.5 million Innovation Fund, with a view to extending faster broadband to the most remote places in the Highlands and Islands.

Due to the current network topography, and the economics of deployment, it is likely that some premises within selected exchange areas will not initially be able to access fibre-based broadband. Alternative solutions for these locations are being investigated.


The subsea cables have been laid between the following exchanges:

Largs - Millport
Kilchattan Bay - Millport
Rothesay - Toward
Kilfinan - Lochgilphead
Campbeltown - Shiskine
Corrie - W. Kilbride
Jura - Port Askaig
Glenbarr - Port Ellen
Jura - Ormsary
Kilchoan - Tobermory
Craignure - Oban
Ardgour - Onich
Stornoway - Ullapool
Lochmaddy - Leverburgh
Carnan - Dunvegan
Ardvasar - Mallaig
Dervaig - Scarinish
Lochboisdale - Eriskay
Eriskay - North Bay
Evie – Westray