BT has unveiled a £146m investment project delivering high speed fibre broadband across the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
The project, led by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and delivered by BT, is being hailed as the UK’s most complex and challenging broadband project ever.
It means that around 84 per cent of Highlands and Islands homes and businesses will have access to fibre broadband by the end of 2016.
Announced by HIE chief executive Alex Paterson at a contract signing with BT in Inverness, the project is set to create a fibre network which will transform the area’s digital capabilities for decades to come.
The announcement was welcomed by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who said: “Our decision to invest over £126m in this project demonstrates the confidence that we have in the economic future of the Highlands and Islands.
“The announcement signals the start of one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in Scotland's history.
"It will connect communities across some of the most challenging landscapes in Europe and provides a platform for future economic development and regeneration.
"Next-generation broadband enables businesses to compete on the international stage and has the potential to transform the way in which we educate our children, provide health and social care and deliver our public services."
The geography and disparate population of the Highlands and Islands present significant technological and cost challenges for the commercial rollout of broadband.
Estimates have indicated that without public sector support fewer than one in four properties would have fibre broadband via commercial rollout.
“This ambitious project is a game changer for the Highlands and Islands," said Paterson.
"It will roll out modern, fast and reliable broadband to areas that could not have hoped to have it introduced commercially.
“Digital connectivity is essential to today’s social and business activity.
"High-speed fibre broadband in the Highlands and Islands will make a real contribution to our communities’ prosperity, particularly for people in remote and rural areas.
“It offers opportunities for new ways of working, innovation, enhanced public services, access to international markets and provides the infrastructure needed by business sectors like energy, life sciences, tourism and business services.”
The public-sector investment towards the contract is £126.4m, 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 £19.4m in the project, on top of its investment in its wider commercial roll-out for the region, taking the total project value to around £146m.
BDUK is responsible for increasing access to broadband on behalf of the UK government.
"The geography of the Highlands and Islands makes this project one of the most challenging in our nationwide roll out of broadband, and I'm delighted that the announcement means that faster speeds and better access are now one step closer to becoming a reality for these communities," Communications Minister Ed Vaizey said.
"We do more business online than any other European country and this will be a tremendous boost for the local Highland and Islands economies."
The project is by far the most ambitious and challenging rural broadband rollout BT has undertaken anywhere in the UK.
The company will build a fibre backbone with more than 800km of new fibre on land and install hundreds more kilometres of fibre access cable to hundreds of new street cabinets.
Engineers will also lay around 400km of subsea cables over 19 crossings to remote islands.
It’s the biggest sub-sea engineering project BT has undertaken in the UK and is the first ever with so many seabed crossings.
Bill Murphy, BT Group’s managing director of next-generation broadband, said: “This is a once in a generation project which will deliver massive benefits not only to the local economy but also to local people of all ages.
"High-speed fibre broadband will improve the quality of public services, strengthen the competitiveness of the region’s businesses and protect and develop jobs.
“There are incredible obstacles to overcome, not least building a fibre network across some of the most rugged terrain in the UK, and we have huge distances to cover as we lay our cables over the hills and glens and under the sea.
"The unprecedented scale of this project is such that it can only be done in partnership and all of us in BT are looking forward to continuing the great working relationship that we’ve built up over many years with Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
“BT’s network will be open to all communications providers on an equal wholesale basis creating a competitive market where people aren’t stuck with one broadband provider and can choose the package and price that suits them.”
Deployment details for the first phase of this partnership will now be finalised and detailed plans for each of the seven local authority areas will be announced in due course.
BT expects to deploy widespread fibre to the cabinet, which offers broadband speeds of up to 80Mbps and some Fibre to the Premises.
Ethernet, which can offer major cost and speed benefits for medium-sized businesses, will also become much more widely available as a result of the fibre build.
During the life of the project, BT and HIE will also be assessing new and emerging technology options through a £2.5m Innovation Fund, with a view to extending faster broadband to the most remote places in the Highlands and Islands.