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Chamber meeting HIE to discuss north broadband speeds

Businesses in Caithness are pushing hard to access the same broadband speeds as the rest of the country so they can remain competitive and help their area survive the terminal rundown of Dounreay.

Caithness Chamber of Commerce is meeting representatives from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) on Monday to review the latter's programme to phase in the high-speed links to the north.

HIE has been under fire in the far north since it announced in October the first eight locations in the Highlands and Moray to benefit from the £146 million roll-out.

The areas in Easter Ross, Inverness and Moray are in line to receive the upgrade in early March.

Business leaders and community representatives in the far north claim the initiative was supposed to prioritise outlying, rural locations and claimed Caithness should be towards the front of the queue.

Now company heads who insist their businesses' future success hinges on improved internet access are calling for answers as to why their area looks like having to wait until 2015 to be connected.

Peter Body, managing director of Norscot at Bower, was involved in the digital connectivity group which held discussions about introducing super-fast broadband to the region.

He said that discovering Caithness looks like having to wait at least another two years was a shock.

"We were assured at the beginning that Caithness was a priority area and Wick, Thurso and John O'Groats would be at the forefront of the upgrade, but that has been reneged upon," he said.

"Whatever action can be done to correct this is key - the big issue is we do no know why it has been delayed.

"If it was an infrastructure issue where more cabling needed to be installed, businesses would accept that, but we believe there is existing infrastructure which they could use.

"We need to understand what the problems are. Had they told us what they are, perhaps we would be more sympathetic."

Added Mr Body: "We have always suffered from poor broadband and it is slowing the day-to-day running of our business.

"Marketing these days is moving towards video, but with the sort of download speeds which currently exist up here, marketing by video is almost an impossibility.

"We have had great difficulty in the past due to the slow broadband speeds to market ourselves online.

"More can be done with improved connectivity and that applies to any business with growth aspirations."

David Sutherland, managing director of Sutherland Brothers in Wick, believes the delays is also holding back more jobs being created in the far north.

He said faster broadband speeds were vital to marketing its products, which could in turn lead to more jobs in the future.

"This is an issue which covers the whole of the north Highlands as well as Caithness, but it is particularly bad up here," he said.

"We are trying to get our customers on to broadband, but it is so poor they can't place orders online.

"We also want to encourage some of our employees to work from home to save them coming into the office but if you don't have good broadband it becomes difficult, because it's too weak."

He added: "If we had superfast broadband, it would mean we could increase our sales, which would enable us to employ more people.

"It's a basic step to meet business needs and at the moment we just don't have it."

HIE previously stated the rollout throughout the Highlands and Moray will be announced in phases to ensure information given to the public is as accurate as possible.

It also said the timescale will include developing the vast fibre network and undertaking major changes to existing infrastructure.