Grimsay is a tiny island roughly three miles long and half again in width, joined to North Uist and Benbecula by a causeway. A single-track road links most of the island's small croft and fishing settlements together. It’s a place of clear water and white sands, with big skies and long horizons.
Now, every single one of the 113 households on Grimsay is able to access reliable, ultrafast broadband1, while 100 miles north on Great Bernera – off the north-west coast of Lewis and linked to the main island by a road bridge – all 220 households can connect.
The two island communities have 100 per cent access to future-proof, full fibre networks built by engineers from Openreach through the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband project, led in the area by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).
Built using 90KM of new fibre cables, it’s capable of carrying services at 1Gbps – around 18.5 times faster than the UK’s current average of 54 Mbps2.
Until now, the communities have been connected to the outside world by a wireless connection over an independent radio network, with a top download speed of around 2Mbps.
For people living at the westerly edges of the British Isles, the advent of reliable, full fibre broadband is nothing short of revolutionary.
Joe FitzPatrick, Scottish Government Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, is visiting Grimsay today (Wednesday) to see the effect high-speed technology is having on the lives of local people, where 65 per cent of households have already signed up for the service.
He said: “Many people living here are engaged in traditional industries, with the island renowned for the quality of the seafood caught off its shores. Full fibre not only enables local industries to engage fully online, but future-proofs the island for economic development and growth. In a world where technology is a main driver, good connectivity levels the playing field, creating new opportunities and stemming depopulation.
“It will also undoubtedly be of great benefit to residents in the area when it comes to healthcare. Programmes such as Attend Anywhere gives patients the ability to have virtual appointments with healthcare professionals via their laptop, tablet or mobile – a service the residents of Grimsay and Great Bernera can now access, thanks to the high quality and future-proofed digital infrastructure delivered by the DSSB programme.
“However, we recognise that not everyone has access to such services and that more must be done. This is why, despite the reserved nature of telecoms in the United Kingdom, we have made the commitment to deliver 100% superfast broadband access in Scotland and backed that commitment with the substantial investment of £600 million in the procurement phase for the Reaching 100% programme.”
From his home in Grimsay, Robin Spratt is already ahead of this particular curve. He and his wife Michelle run their artisan business Hebridean Candles making hand-poured, soy wax candles which are sold in a network of shops across the islands as well as from their workshop behind their Baymore home. Their new, fast broadband connection has brought improvements for work and home life.
Robin said: “Before the arrival of full fibre, we had a satellite broadband system with very limited data. Now when people visit the workshop and want to buy, we can process electronic payments on site. It’s great for business but it also has a big impact on our personal life as now we can access online services like catch-up TV and stay in close contact with our grown-up family.
“There is much discussion in the islands about how to overcome the issue of depopulation, but good connectivity makes life in a remote location much more viable. Sort out the broadband and mobile connectivity and the problem solves itself.”
Donnie Morrison, HIE digital senior development manager, who lives in Lewis, said: “It’s great to see small rural communities like Grimsay and Great Bernera benefit from the best hard-wired broadband right into their homes and businesses. With access to health, business, and lifestyle technology it’s a huge benefit for those already living here, and in keeping and attracting our young workforce who want quality of life and global career prospects.”
For Openreach, fresh thinking was needed to overcome the challenges of getting technology to the Western Isles. Prior to the Digital Scotland project, there were no sub-sea links to take high-speed services to the islands, and no plans of any kind for superfast broadband for residents.
The sub-sea network subsequently built in 2014 was the company’s most complex ever in British waters, and the stretch across the Minch from Ullapool to Stornoway was the longest of 20 sub-sea fibre routes, at nearly 80KM. Latterly, the digital network business has shipped out specialist full fibre engineers to lodge locally while they get residents connected, working with local engineers.
Today, the superfast network has reached nearly 80 per cent of households on the islands3 and the take-up rate – currently 66 per cent – is routinely among the highest in the UK.
Robert Thorburn, Openreach’s partnership director for Scotland, said: “When we started planning the Digital Scotland rollout, Western Isles was hands down the most difficult place to build. It has the lowest population density in the UK and many communities are comprised of remote and scattered households.
“This project is a game-changer for the people of the Western Isles, with a lasting legacy for the future. In a place like Grimsay, technology is truly life-changing – opening up markets and innovation for businesses and connecting islanders to each other, the world and vital services.
“There’s more to do, but if we can bring full fibre broadband to a scattered community like Grimsay, then it can be done anywhere.”