Web bows to nature as tides cut off broadband connection
The 140 residents of the island of Berneray, off North Uist, were delighted when they were hooked up to broadband technology, aimed at giving faster telephone and internet links, but one of the great advances of modern communications has been stopped in its tracks by the movement of the tides.
The islanders were brought on stream through Western Isles Enterprise (WIE) Connected Communities network, which aims to bring broadband services to all parts of the islands through radio transmitters and avoid the expense of upgrading telephone lines and exchanges.
Because the Western Isles are distant from the main internet connections and the wide distribution of the population across a number of islands, more usual methods of providing broadband, such as cable, are impractical, so wireless is being used.
However, it was soon discovered that connections were being interrupted regularly, and always at low tide.
Investigations revealed that reflections from the ocean surface interfere with the main radio waves, requiring a new relay site closer to the houses to ensure better coverage.
Donnie Morrison, the Connected Communities manager, said: "WIE are fully aware of the tidal anomaly currently existing in Berneray with regards to the transmission of wireless broadband, which occasionally affects delivery to two or three customers in the area.
"In advance of a relay site being built in Berneray, temporary services are being delivered from a distant site and dependant on the height of the tide at certain times, a few of our customers may experience difficulty for a short period.
"We continue to work with our customers in the area to bring them what is one of the most powerful broadband solutions in any rural community in the UK. Once the relay site has been built, customers will not be affected. The relay site is currently in the design stages and will be completed as soon the necessary permissions are granted."
He added: "Radio waves do not travel in an absolute straight line and reflect off various surfaces in the course of travel. In some instances when the reflection is strong enough it can cancel out the main signal by knocking it out of phase.
"This is why the height of the tide seems to affect the reflections in Berneray. Our systems are delivering services over water in many parts of the Western Isles, yet Berneray is the only location where this effect is causing these small anomalies."
John Kirriemuir, a regular user of the web who lives in Berneray, said: "We waited a long time for it, but now that we have it, it's good. There are some teething problems, but my understanding is they will be sorted."
Archie Campbell, the local councillor, said: "It's a bit funny when you think about, broadband is affected by the tide, but that is the truth of the matter. It seems that when the tide is low the signal breaks up and when the tide is high it's all right.
"But they are rectifying it by putting a relay mast on Berneray which will pick the signal up from the north end of North Uist."
All BT telephone exchanges in the Highlands and Islands are now set up to receive broadband except one. The island of Foula is scheduled for upgrading in May.