Shetland Cut Off From the World After Undersea Cable Breaks

LONDON — Shetland, the Scottish archipelago that lies across the sea from Norway and more than 100 miles north of mainland Britain, was already remote. It became even more so on Thursday, officials said, when an underwater cable broke, cutting off communications for the thousands of people who call the islands home.

Just after midnight, a fishing vessel likely damaged an underwater cable connecting Shetland to the Scottish mainland, said Páll Vesturbú, head of infrastructure for Faroese Telecom, a company that both owns and operates the affected submarine fiber optic cable network. Service is provided to the Shetland region by BT Group, a telecommunications company based in London that leases part of the cable network.

Alistair Carmichael, a member of parliament for Orkney and Shetland, said that similar incidents had happened over the years, with fishing boats as the typical culprit. But he said the loss of connectivity on Thursday was the worst he’d ever seen.

“It’s not unknown for these things to happen but this is a particularly catastrophic break,” Mr. Carmichael said.

Undersea cables, generally buried in the bottom of the ocean, face a variety of hazards, such as anchors and fishing tackle, according to the Danish Cable Protection Committee. In just seconds, the cables carry the internet across the ocean floor, and link electricity and energy between countries.

This particular network stretches 621 miles among the islands in that region, according to the Submarine Cable Map.

A spokesman for BT Group said that broadband internet outages had been the most widespread problem on Thursday, with mobile phone service also compromised to a lesser extent. Landline phone service remained mostly unaffected, he said.

On Friday morning, a BT spokeswoman said that engineers were able to reconnect services with a temporary solution on Thursday afternoon, and that backups were in place should the cables fail while being repaired. The company said it expected to repair one of the two damaged cables by the weekend, but did not offer a timetable for the other.

Catherine Munro, an anthropologist who lives in Burra, said that the day had been unsettling. When she woke up, there was no signal on her mobile phone. At first, she said she wasn’t sure how widespread the outage was.

“It was a bit of an odd start to the day as after all the events in Parliament last night. I literally didn’t know if the prime minister was still in post,” Ms. Munro, 39, said, adding that she eventually heard the news on her car radio.

She traveled to a busier section of town, where she heard chatter that credit card machines weren’t working and observed many emergency personnel stationed around the area.

Though her connectivity was restored by mid-afternoon, she said she was prepared for it to flicker on and off.

About 23,000 people live in Shetland, an archipelago in the middle of the North Sea of around 100 islands, 16 of which are inhabited, according to the region’s website. It is a popular destination for tourists, who arrive by ferry or plane. Some travel there for the annual wool week, an exuberant celebration of knitting. Shetland is the birthplace of fair isle knitting, a distinctive and often vibrant pattern featuring different shapes and zig-zagging lines.

Designated by UNESCO as a global geopark, its rugged landscape was once colonized by the Vikings before Scotland gained control of the archipelago in the 15th century.

The sudden loss of internet and phone service was perhaps a reminder of that history, defined by its distance from the mainland. And the cable repairs will not come easy. A different part of the network, a cable that connects the Faroe Islands to Shetland, broke last week and was still being worked on, a spokesman for BT Group said. That repair was expected to done by Saturday.

The BT spokesman said it was working on a temporary restoration of services with Faroese Telecom. The company said that anyone needing emergency services should use other means, like landlines, while service was out.

“Technicians have been working all day to restore services to the extent possible,” Mr. Vesturbú of Faroese Telecom said, adding that the work may not be done until next week.

Police Scotland said in a news release that “extra resources” were being sent to Shetland to assist with emergency services. They urged residents to avoid non-essential calls.

“We are advising people not to make non-urgent calls for the time being so that all available lines can be used for emergencies if required,” Superintendent David Ross said in the statement, advising residents to travel to the nearest police station to report an emergency if emergency lines are not connecting.

Officers were patrolling the region in vehicles and on foot, he said, and the authorities were working with partners to make additional resources available.