SUPERFAST broadband is to be rolled out across the Moray Firth – which becomes the first to benefit from a multi-million project to improve internet connection in remote areas.
More than £260million in all is being invested by the public sector and BT for fibre broadband in areas where it is not seen as commercially viable by internet providers.
Milton of Leys and Culloden, both on the outskirts of Inverness, Lhanbryde, Ardersier, Buckie, Fortrose, Hopeman, and Lossiemouth will “go live” from next year.
Details of the first eight areas to benefit from the high-speed network – seen as a key economic driver in remote area – come just a week after a report revealed the Highlands and Islands was suffering an exodus of people who are frustrated at slow internet speeds, or not getting internet access at all.
Without public sector support, its estimated less than a quarter of Scotland’s properties will be able to access fibre connections by 2016.
Once completed, the overall deal should bring fibre capability to a total of 600,000 Scottish homes and businesses, bringing together £158m of public funding and £106m from BT.
It is hoped that 84% of Scotland should have access to higher-speed broadband by the end of 2015, and 95% two years later.
Early priority is being given to rural small and medium-sized businesses to encourage economic growth in “hard-to-reach” areas.
More than 16,000 homes and businesses on the outskirts of the Highland capital and along the coast into Moray, are the first to be provided with internet speeds of up to 80Mbps, some areas from early 2014.
The project is being hailed as one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in Scotland’s recent history.
The rural broadband project is being funded by the Scottish and UK governments, Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and BT.
Stuart Robertson, HIE’s Director of Digital Highlands and Islands, said: “This is by far the most challenging rural broadband rollout in the UK and we are delighted that our first communities will be accessing services within months.
“Commercial rollout taking place across the UK would have reached no more than one in five premises in the Highlands and Islands. So the project’s target of 84% coverage levels for the region will represent a significant step change.
“This first rollout of fibre broadband will be available to customers who are connected to a number of street cabinets within the eight exchange areas. Homes and businesses will be able to check availability over the coming weeks and there will be further work carried out in these areas to extend the reach as the rollout progresses.”
Rural affairs minister Richard Lochhead said: “The Scottish Government is determined to ensure that all communities can benefit from the opportunities of the digital age.
“This is demonstrated by our substantial investment - totalling about £64 million - in this infrastructure project, which is one of the most ambitious in Scotland’s history.
“I am delighted to see rural communities and businesses beginning to enjoy the benefits from this high quality digital connectivity which will be critical in ensuring the long-term economic prosperity of the Highlands and Islands.”
Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey MP, Danny Alexander claimed the Liberal Democrats had worked hard in government to see the project proceed.
He added: “I am determined to see the Highlands at the forefront of superfast broadband which can make such a difference both to our businesses and communities, particularly those in remote areas.
Alistair Carmichael, the new Secretary of State for Scotland, added: “The UK Government has contributed £50million to make sure all families, communities and businesses in the Highlands and Islands have access to a high quality, fast broadband service and Highland and Islands Enterprise’s announcement today marks a significant step towards this goal.
“Broadband is vital for jobs, services and the economy in the Highlands and Islands so I’m pleased to see this investment in rural broadband in Scotland is starting to come to fruition as the first exchanges go live around Inverness and along the Moray coast.”
BT is to lay more than 800km of fibre backbone cable on land, and 400km more via 20 subsea crossings as part of the project.
Brendan Dick, Director, BT Scotland, said: “This exciting technology will play a vital part in the area’s future success. It is crucial if local businesses are to continue to thrive in a competitive environment.
The overall aim of the Highlands and Islands Next Generation Broadband Project is to help meet the targets set out by the Scottish Government, the UK Government, and the European Commission.
By 2020, HIE’s ambition is that everyone in the Highlands and Islands is able to access broadband download speeds of at least 30mbps.