December 7, 2023


Communications to Shetland have been severely disrupted after a subsea cable was damaged.

Police have declared a major incident after the south subsea cable between the islands and the mainland was cut.

The force said phones, internet and computers were not usable and that officers were patrolling to try to reassure residents.

Repairs to another cable connecting Shetland and Faroe are ongoing after it was damaged last week.

MP for Orkney and Shetlands Alastair Carmichael told the BBC he had raised the issue with the UK government, but understood it could be days before communications were restored.

He said the priority was fixing the issue but that resilience would also need to be looked at in future.

Homes and businesses are affected across the isles, which are 130 miles (210 km) from the Scottish mainland and have a population of about 23,000.

The BBC has heard reports that many shops unable to take card payments.

Meanwhile Highlands and Islands Airports told the BBC that Sumburgh Airport was “operating as normal”, but would advise passengers to contact Loganair for further updates.

Serco NorthLink Ferries confirmed they did not anticipate the problem would have any impact on sailings.

A BT Group spokesperson said: “Due to a break in a third-party subsea cable connecting Shetland with the Scottish mainland, some phone, broadband and mobile services are affected.

“Anyone who needs to call 999 should try their landline or their mobile, even if they don’t have signal from their own mobile provider. We’re sorry for any inconvenience.”

Emergency services have had to implement temporary backup arrangements.

Police Scotland said it was working with partners including the Scottish Fire and Recue Service and HM Coastguard to bring additional emergency support to the island.

Ch Insp Jane Mackenzie told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme that police officers would be more visible on the island in the meantime.

She said: “We’re still trying to work to establish the full extent of the problem – we know there are some telephone lines working, 999 lines are believed to be working and some mobile networks are still working.

“So anyone calling 999 should be able to do so from a mobile phone. What we would ask is if you have an emergency you should first try a landline or mobile to call 999.

“If that doesn’t work, you should flag down an emergency service vehicle that isn’t using their blue light or attend either a police station, hospital, fire or ambulance station to report the emergency.”

Two cable problems ‘rare’

Ch Insp Mackenzie urged the public not to use phone lines for non-urgent calls and to check on elderly or vulnerable people more frequently as assistance alarms may not be operating effectively.

He said: “The damage is affecting most of telecom services to Shetland. There are some services still working but we will try to establish more services during the day if that’s possible.

“We expect it will be fishing vessels that damaged the cable but it is very rare that we have two problems at the same time.”

How do subsea cables work?

Modern submarine cables use fibre optic technology and are typically as wide as a garden hose, according to telecoms market research firm TeleGeography.

It explains lasers on one end fire at extremely rapid rates down thin glass fibres to receptors at the other end of the cable.

These glass fibres are wrapped in layers of plastic – and sometimes steel wire – for protection.

Cables lie on the ocean floor, while nearer to the shore they are buried under the seabed for additional protection.

The firm said “considerable care” is taken to make sure cables avoid fault zones, fishing zones, anchoring areas and other dangers.

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