Broadband Availability

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:05 pm on 3rd February 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:05 pm, 3rd February 2010

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-5291, in the name of Peter Peacock, on improved availability of broadband. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the UK Government's commitment to improving availability of broadband as detailed in the Digital Britain report published in June 2009; welcomes the commitment to deliver a Universal Service Broadband Commitment of 2Mbps by 2012; welcomes the proposed public support for the network of tomorrow to allow for access to next generation broadband; considers the Western Isles of Scotland to be the worst area in Scotland in terms of broadband coverage and one of worst in the United Kingdom as a whole; is concerned at the disadvantages that rural areas of Scotland suffer in terms of economic, business and educational development when broadband services are inadequate, and would welcome a positive response to the report and the delivery of improved and reliable broadband services for every Scottish broadband customer.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 5:08 pm, 3rd February 2010

I welcome this further opportunity to debate broadband. It is an important issue for many of our areas, as we know from a recent debate. I will focus on the "Digital Britain" report and try to explore some of the answers to the challenges that we know exist, rather than dwell on the problem, because the debate in Murdo Fraser's name a couple of months ago adequately rehearsed many of the problems that we and our constituents face.

I warmly welcome the "Digital Britain" report, particularly the bit of it that relates to broadband. It is the first explicit recognition that the private markets will not provide for large parts of the United Kingdom, particularly areas that many members who are present represent. That is particularly the case in the Highlands and Islands, where investment is at its highest and yet the returns from the marketplace are at their lowest, because of population dispersal and the low population: there is no return on the investment, so it is not going to happen.

The report explicitly recognises the need for public investment because markets are not able to provide. That follows a long line of past initiatives by previous Governments—Conservative and Labour—here and at UK level. Indeed, the current Scottish National Party Government is carrying that forward in the Scottish context. I was pleased this week to see the Tories recognise that there is a need for public intervention—there was a policy announcement in the south about that.

The report sets out an explicit minimum universal service commitment—2Mbps for everybody in the UK by 2012. That is quite modest by modern standards, but it is still challenging for many parts of Scotland. It is hugely important for many people whom I represent—and for people who are represented by other members who are present—who currently do not have anything like that capacity. I welcome the £200 million fund to help to achieve that.

The report further recognises that the next thing to look at after the 2Mbps commitment is next-generation access and superfast broadband. The UK has announced a £1 billion fund to move towards that. Although there might be disagreement between the Tories and the Labour Party at UK level about how to fund that, there is, nonetheless, an agreement that there is a requirement for funds.

In the short term, it is vital that the Scottish interest in all that be represented to the unit that is looking at the issue in the south. There is a network design and procurement group that will help to use up the £200 million. It is vital that the Scottish Government play a role in representing Scotland's interests to that group. There is not just a Scottish interest: there needs also to be a regional view, and local pictures have to be developed throughout Scotland, which will help to build up the national picture. We have to identify blockages in infrastructure, pinch points and the backhaul capacity issues that we need to resolve if we are to move forward.

The report highlights the Western Isles as having the worst broadband connections in the UK in many respects. There is also an issue with the connection between the Western Isles and the mainland and the backhaul capacity across the Minch. That is only one of the things that might require to be funded out of the £200 million.

I met the UK minister a few weeks ago. I arranged a meeting of various Scottish interests to talk to him about these things. He is aware of the issues and he has some insight into them. I understand that the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism will be meeting the UK minister in a few weeks to talk about these things. The Scottish Government has a strong role to play in making a case for a very big share of the £200 million. I would not support talk of a per capita share, because our needs are greater and we are further behind many parts of the UK. We require a good slug—to use a technical term—of that £200 million. In due course, we will also need a good slug of the £1 billion that is coming along.

The Scottish Government has a key role in developing a digital Scottish vision from current strands of policy, many of which are evident. A lot of people have a lot of ideas about how to solve the problems, which need to be pulled together in a public policy for Scotland.

Some of the new thinking would allow us—particularly, believe it or not, in the Highlands and Islands—to leapfrog the 2Mbps commitment and move pretty quickly to superfast broadband. We have some of the funding streams in place. There is the £200 million, the £1 billion that is coming along, and the LEADER programme that the Government is pursuing here. The wider rural development programme might be able to contribute, too. That could achieve for Scotland far more than the 90 per cent coverage that the report envisages next-generation broadband will cover.

We already have public investment in place. The Highlands and Islands and the south of Scotland had the pathfinder investments in our schools, libraries and other public buildings paid for—with spare capacity in the system. I encourage the opening of access to that spare capacity. Highland Council would be a key player in that, as would Cable & Wireless, which bought Thus, which made the original investment. I encourage the minister to encourage those bodies to provide access to that.

We have communities that are thirsting for improvement and which have the capacity for self-help. We have technical advances: Professor Buneman of the University of Edinburgh is doing interesting work with wireless technology, and I spoke to a guy from Skye last week who is putting wireless technology into campsites across the Highlands and Islands. He is using a local aggregation point to deliver a signal wirelessly, with potentially very high bandwidth.

We need to help those communities to make use of such technology and to access the funding for it. Models of support are available that have worked. In the past, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise community land unit has helped communities to purchase their land, and the community energy unit has helped communities to get involved in community renewables. Perhaps it is time for a community broadband support unit to help communities to take advantage of the technology that exists.

We know what the challenges are. "Digital Britain" commits us to public interventions, and public funds are available at Scotland level for that. Communities are anxious and willing to make progress, and there are technical advances that would enable them to leapfrog current expectations. All that desperately needs to be pulled together at Scotland level, quickly and coherently, to ensure that we can access the digital Britain funds. I encourage the minister to do that. He should work with councils, with Scottish Enterprise, with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and even with other political parties—there is consensus on some of the issues across the parties, although there are differences, too. He should also work with the private interests that have insights into and interests in the subject.

Only by limiting our own imagination and vision will we hold ourselves back. I can see a clear way forward and I am personally more than happy to contribute to the policy's development. I urge the minister to act quickly on those and a range of other issues in order to see whether we can find some innovative and clear solutions to take us forward faster than anybody currently believes is possible.

Photo of Dave Thompson Dave Thompson Scottish National Party 5:16 pm, 3rd February 2010

I thank Peter Peacock for his opening speech. As an MSP for the Highlands and Islands—a part of the country that has the most to gain from the introduction of modern communications technology—I have taken a close interest in the provision of internet links in the Highlands and Islands. As we all know, a secure route to the information superhighway is every bit as important for communities, schools and businesses in the north of Scotland as is badly needed investment in the area's physical transport connections.

With businesses able to market their goods and services internationally, with college and university courses increasingly being delivered online and with medical expertise being shared over the internet, it is vital that the technology that is capable of removing the disadvantages of distance be made available to the country's most remote communities. That is why the announcement in September by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth of £3 million from the Scottish Government to upgrade more than 50 telephone exchanges throughout Scotland to internet-ready capability was so warmly welcomed not just by me, but by the many constituents who have contacted my office to communicate the need for exactly that improvement. We are making good progress in very difficult times, and Jim Mather is to be congratulated on that.

Some of those constituents run bed and breakfasts or food businesses and need to be online to advertise their activities and take bookings. [Interruption.] Others use the internet to keep in contact with friends and relatives all over the world, and many find that the internet opens the door to continuous education from pre-school right through to postgraduate level. All are inconvenienced by the fact that their outdated dial-up connections mean that their telephones are engaged while a member of their household or business is online. The upgrading of their local telephone exchange would remove that inconvenience and would allow them, for the first time, to challenge for business on a level playing field with their competitors, regardless of their location.

Mr Swinney's first allocation to the national roll-out of internet-ready facilities has resulted in many more exchange upgrades than the 50 that were planned: 71 exchanges have been upgraded in partnership with BT, serving areas all over Scotland that would previously have been regarded as remote or isolated. Although not all the constituents who contacted my office had their internet connection problems solved by Mr Swinney's first tranche of funding, that was only the first step. This week, the good news continued with the announcement that a further eight exchanges—from Applecross, Kinlocheil and Glenelg, in my region, to Whitsome, in the Borders—are to be upgraded. The good work continues and moves on.

That demonstrates the Scottish Government's on-going commitment to the process of laying down this vital infrastructure throughout Scotland so that its benefits can be shared by all. [Interruption.] For far too long, residents and businesses in the Highlands and Islands and other rural areas have been told that the downside of living in such beautiful surroundings is that their remoteness from major population centres means accepting that their businesses will be disadvantaged when they try to contact customers, and that their children will have to leave home if they want to continue their education.

Now, for more or less the first time, the Scottish Government is providing the infrastructure that is needed to help to improve the economy of remote and rural areas, and to help to end the depopulation that was once caused by the need for young people to move away. That is why I urge members to join me in reminding Peter Peacock that although Westminster's "Digital Britain" initiative is a welcome additional step—I hope that we can all work together to take best advantage of that, and I agree with him that we need a far bigger "slug" of the £200 million, based on population alone—the Scottish Government is already working with BT to open access to modern broadband communications and to widen the participation of our remote and rural areas in the worldwide web. [Interruption.]

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Clearly, someone in the chamber is connected to the internet or we would not be getting interference on the microphone.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 5:20 pm, 3rd February 2010

People will have heard me speaking in previous debates on broadband about the difficulties in the rural parts of my constituency. I welcome the opportunity today to discuss the issue again. Peter Peacock made an excellent speech about how we should take things forward. We have heard from other members about the issues for local businesses and for people who want to access education, and other reasons why people would want to be on the internet. There is general agreement throughout Parliament that we ought to be concerned about what has been described as the digital divide. Today we had a briefing from the Scottish Trades Union Congress, in which Grahame Smith, the general secretary, usefully pointed out that

"The scale of the challenge is considerable and"— if we are trying to get everyone connected to the internet—

"will not be met by the market alone."

I want to mention a village in my constituency—Rankinston in East Ayrshire. I welcome to the gallery Lisa Ross and her husband Duncan, who have been at the forefront of local activity, through Rankinston community council, to set up a project to make the village a wi-fi hotspot. Rankinston has around 300 residents, a high percentage of whom are unemployed or retired, and it is estimated that around 25 per cent are in education. It would be fair to say that the villagers often feel isolated. There is literally one road in and one road out. They have recently lost their post office and their village shop, and people complain about the lack of buses and transport links to the area. After a fairly concerted campaign, we managed to save the local school. Life in the village tends to revolve around the community centre. The community association puts out a monthly newsletter and, 18 months ago, it set up a website, not only to try to keep people in touch locally but to ensure that ex-Rankinston residents around the globe have access to information about what is going on in the area.

The problem is that many residents do not have access to a computer, and even if they were able to afford a computer, they would be unable, individually, to afford a broadband subscription. That is why the community aspires to make use of the village as a centre for the internet: for education purposes—to get young people involved in homework clubs—and to offer connections for young people with people in other areas. The community plans to set up an internet café, which would be at the centre of the wi-fi hotspot.

The village has been able to secure funding from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, and has worked hard to ensure that laptop computers will be available. It plans to have classes to encourage people who have not yet been involved in the internet to understand it and to get involved. It also hopes that, as was suggested earlier in a different context, visitors might be encouraged to come to the village. It could potentially boost tourism and other business interests.

That is the first part of the process that the community wants to get under way. However, in order to make maximum use of those ideas, it needs to boost the established broadband signal and ensure that it is available throughout the village, which it has not been up until now. Peter Peacock's idea of a community broadband support unit would very much benefit a community such as Rankinston. There will be no point in the villagers doing all that hard work to access the hardware and get it into the area if people are still unable to access a decent enough broadband speed to make it worth while. As it was put to me, there would be no point in someone having access to the BBC iPlayer if they had to leave their computer switched on overnight in order to download a whole programme.

I hope that the report is taken forward, and I look forward to hearing what the minister has to say about the support that might be on offer to villages such as Rankinston and others in my constituency, which want to do something for themselves. They do not expect everything to be done for them, but they seek some help and support from Government, where possible.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 5:25 pm, 3rd February 2010

I congratulate Peter Peacock on securing a debate on the important subject of broadband. He was kind enough to contribute to my members' business debate on broadband in December, and I am happy to return the favour this evening.

The same day that I held my members' business debate, we heard an announcement from the Scottish Government on the upgrading of around 70 new rural exchanges. I did not notice a similar announcement today; perhaps that shows that I am more persuasive with the Scottish Government than Mr Peacock is, or perhaps—and more likely—he has just been unlucky with his timing, as it is the day of the budget vote.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am pleased to tell the member that the pattern has continued, as a much more modest, but still significant and helpful, announcement was made either yesterday or today.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am grateful to Peter Peacock for clarifying that—I must have missed it. I am sure that the minister will elaborate in due course.

I declare a personal interest, as I moved house last week and spent many dismal hours battling on the telephone with BT to try to get the existing broadband connection transferred to my name. I am pleased to say that that has now eventually been resolved; I am grateful to Ian Shanks of BT for his endless courtesy and patience, and his personal intervention. That was my experience of dealing with broadband, but it is a mere shadow of what I know some of my constituents have to go through.

I have spoken to many constituents in Angus and Perthshire since my members' business debate took place in December. Although many of them welcomed the announcement about upgrading the exchanges, many have pointed out to me that that is only part of the solution. There are still widespread problems with broadband availability in rural and remote parts of Scotland, and I will be interested to hear an update from the minister today—if he has time—on the progress of the exchange upgrades. The first of those was due to be completed by March this year, and we are still waiting on a date for the upgrading of the Fern and Menmuir exchanges in Angus.

It is frustrating for people in rural areas to see the continual improvement of broadband connectivity in our cities while they cannot get broadband access at all. My colleague Elizabeth Smith pointed out that in Madderty in Perthshire, where she lives, she has no access to broadband at all. It is the two-tier system of broadband connectivity that frustrates so many people in rural areas. Peter Peacock refers in his motion to the situation in the Western Isles, which the "Digital Britain" report identified as one of the problem areas. It is that lack of service in rural areas that is most frustrating when we see the cities powering ahead with superfast broadband.

Peter Peacock was kind enough—clearly, he is in generous mood tonight—to refer to the announcement this week by the Conservative party at Westminster that, if elected, by 2017 we will make the United Kingdom the first major European country to have internet speeds of up to 100Mbps per second. We intend to allow private investors from companies such as Carphone Warehouse and Sky to be given permission to use BT cables to provide the service.

That will allow the market a greater opportunity to deliver. However, crucially, we have also said that if the market does not deliver, a Conservative Government will extend the 3.5 per cent levy on the BBC licence fee that is currently being used for digital switchover to pay for broadband expansion. That will mean that media organisations will drive forward greater broadband speeds, and it will allow cabling in rural areas to be extended, which will be paid for by private investors with the licence fee making up the shortfall.

We believe that we must end BT's local loop monopoly and allow other operators to move in with their own ducts and fibre cables, which is an approach that has proved successful in countries such as Singapore and South Korea. Rural communities in particular would welcome those improvements. Investment in broadband in rural communities is essential, and we need to end the two-tier approach. I look forward to hearing the Scottish Government's attitude in response to those initiatives.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 5:29 pm, 3rd February 2010

I congratulate Peter Peacock on bringing this evening's debate to the chamber. It seems not a day or two ago that, in another place, we talked about the issues when we were councillors together. He quite correctly painted a picture of the scene as it is today. When he said that the private market will not provide, he was spot on. We need to get a good slug of the £200 million.

Taking up the theme of Peter Peacock's intervention on Murdo Fraser, I note that, as Peter pointed out, the Scottish Government has indeed announced that a further eight exchanges will be upgraded. Having raised the issue of Drumbeg in my speech in the debate in December—indeed, having intervened on the minister and received a positive response—I am gratified to see that Drumbeg was added to the list of exchanges that will be upgraded. That means an enormous amount. Not a great number of people are affected, but the issue is about equality of access, and I am grateful.

I, too, pay tribute to Ian Shanks, although not for helping me with my personal telephone line. For a number of years, he has engaged and worked with MSPs and other concerned people. That is invaluable in a public servant of his calibre. We are grateful.

I do not intend to patronise businesses by saying that they must access broadband, because they are the ones who are pushing for it. When they get the upgrade and it is available, they are in there quickly. However, arising from the provision of broadband are a number of issues that build on what Peter Peacock has already said. The trick is to get other businesses to relocate to the Highlands and Islands by saying, "Look, there is broadband, there are schools and there is a quality of life that is unmatched in almost any other part of Britain, so come north. Come to us." It is getting that message over that is the tricky part. The enterprise network does its best, but it is not always about big companies. A one-man publishing outfit can still make a difference, and the collective sum of such businesses can boost the local economy in a way that is really quite remarkable for such remote areas.

Dave Thompson mentioned the transport infrastructure. I would argue that that also relates to broadband provision, because we can put in broadband, but if the road network is not of the standard that it should be, that can fly in the face of a business deciding to relocate. That is about the A9 being upgraded. It is about the non-trunk road network, as administered by councils in Scotland, being kept up to scratch and improved. That is becoming difficult given the financial problems that we face at present. I have mentioned this so many times, but it is about post buses, and it is even about investing in people's ability to get to the Skye campsite that Peter Peacock mentioned, where there is wireless provision. Those issues are attached to broadband and we should not forget them.

I am grateful for the work that has been done. I pay tribute to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which invested in the physical infrastructure to enable broadband to be possible. We look to the future but, at the end of the day, broadband is a method of keeping the lights on in the straths and glens in my constituency and, most important, a method of keeping the people there, including the youngsters with their futures ahead of them. I commend the minister for the decision and look forward to working closely with him. The matter transcends party-political divides. It is a simple, straightforward service that can make or break rural communities.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party 5:33 pm, 3rd February 2010

I congratulate Peter Peacock on giving us a chance to talk about broadband in the context of the "Digital Britain" report. However, I could not sign his motion because I have huge problems with what the report proposes, much of which does not add up. I will deal with some of the problems in my speech, and I hope that the minister will reflect on them.

First, I am happy to welcome the upgrades to eight further exchanges. The areas that have been identified have an improving situation at the moment. Apparently, the Highlands and Islands, which I represent, has on average 95 per cent ADSL coverage, which is a higher average than Britain or Scotland as a whole. However, the level of that access is so low that Cathy Jamieson's remarks are pertinent about the time that it would take to download a programme. The BBC iPlayer is the common standard. If someone cannot watch a programme on it instantly, they do not have a broadband system that is worthy of the name. Also, the limited capacity in exchange activate areas might be limiting broadband take-up.

When last year I carried out a major consultation exercise in the more remote parts of the Highlands and Islands and Orkney, I had a very large response rate—about 30 per cent of households—from the IV27 postcode, which is north-west Sutherland. I was amazed by people's concern that the current system could work at the level that Cathy Jamieson highlighted.

A number of the proposed remedies just will not work. Is it physically possible to meet the universal service commitment of 2Mbps to every household within the allocated time and, if so, how much will it cost? Indeed, the problems of cost have been highlighted by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and in the Analysys Mason report, which suggests that the 50p levy on phone lines should be able to deliver to in excess of 90 per cent of the UK and 85 per cent of the Highlands and Islands. However, no timescale has been specified in that respect. About 95 per cent of the Highlands is already connected, but the challenge is to connect all the remotest areas, which at the moment do not have the service, and provide a level playing field for them and the people whose service is not at the same megabyte level. That proposal is still in the air.

As for the 50p levy on phone lines, what about mobile broadband? Why can we not have a more progressive form of getting the funding? We should be able to introduce that but, of course, we are unable to raise taxes. London is proposing the measure in the Finance Bill, but it is questionable whether the current Government will be in power after May. What is going to happen? Again, we have been left up in the air.

In fact, the question really needs to be answered, because the levy is to be made on copper lines. Will the many people who already have fibre optic and wireless technology—and who have the fastest broadband service—have to pay under the "Digital Britain" proposals, or will it be those whose service is provided along the poorest, longest and thinnest copper wires? I am very concerned about that.

As far as extending 3G mobile coverage is concerned, we should be able to tap into what has happened, for example, in the Faeroes, which receives its service from a fibre optic cable that goes from Scotland up past Orkney and Shetland. However, there are no proposals in that respect in "Digital Britain".

Above all, we have to recognise that the STUC was right when it said that the level of funding in Scotland must be increased, and we need to find some realistic way of securing that. I am sure that the Scottish Government will serve the Scottish interest but I hope that the HIE report, which will be published in April, contains some practical solutions to these problems, and not a wish list such as the one that is set out in "Digital Britain".

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 5:37 pm, 3rd February 2010

I, too, congratulate Peter Peacock on securing this debate. Whether it is used for work, education or leisure, fast, efficient broadband is important to many people and, indeed, many of our constituents.

I feel like an interloper in this debate not just because I do not have the technical expertise that Rob Gibson has so ably displayed but because so many of the members speaking tonight are from Scotland's more remote and rural parts. However, I want to highlight a number of issues that have arisen in Westfield, a small village in my constituency in the middle of Scotland.

Despite the village's location in the middle of the central belt only a few miles from the M8 and the M9, the residents of Westfield have, until the past year, been unable to access broadband because—we were told—the exchange could not cope with the extra demand. In the past 12 months, however, Avanti has put in place a scheme to provide that service. I acknowledge the part that the minister has played in developing the scheme and thank him for patiently replying to my many letters highlighting on-going problems.

However, although the minister has tried to help, some problems remain. For example, one constituent who has used the Avanti scheme to access broadband for her work has found reception to be patchy and difficult. She was told that that was due to the position of her house, to the trees and to a whole number of other factors, none of which, it seemed, could be resolved. She did not want the trees cut down—even if the farmer had agreed to do so—and is therefore left with an unsatisfactory service for her work. I find it hard to believe that there is not a technical remedy to that problem.

Only this week another constituent told me that his son, who works in information technology, said that his broadband was seriously slow. My constituent, who is due to renew his annual contract, wonders whether he is wasting his money and whether he is getting the service that he should be getting.

As has been said, BT recently stated that it intended to upgrade exchanges. Although I am happy for everybody who is included in those upgrades, I do not believe that Westfield is included. I understand that BT said, in response to a letter, that it will upgrade exchanges only where there is an economic case for doing so—in other words, only where it will make money. I know that the upgrade of the local exchange would benefit my constituents in Westfield, so I ask the minister to consider the matter further and see what support he can give BT so that it upgrades exchanges where it benefits the community and individuals, rather than just benefiting the providers financially.

I look forward to hearing the minister's reply. Work still has to be done throughout Scotland, but a start has been made and I hope that all our constituents will be able to benefit further.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party 5:41 pm, 3rd February 2010

I thank Peter Peacock for securing this members' business debate on what is an important issue, not least, as he mentioned, for my constituency.

I strongly agree with Mr Peacock's view that broadband is essential to the economic and social wellbeing of Scotland's rural areas, and in particular its island communities. In some senses, that statement is testimony to the sheer scale of change that Scotland's islands have seen in recent decades. It is worth calling to mind the fact that a good few parts of my constituency did not have electricity, far less television, until as late as 1970.

Why, the metropolitan cynic might ask, is it reasonable for the islands to expect broadband now? It is reasonable for a number of reasons to do with fairness and for simple reasons of survival. For Scotland's remote communities not to have broadband is to cut them off from a whole range of opportunities. It prevents people from working from home or pretty much anywhere else in the community, it impedes business start-up and survival, and it prevents schools from accessing the benefits of large areas of the curriculum as it is delivered elsewhere.

Without overly rehearsing the history of the situation, I believe that there is no doubt that a serious error was made some years ago when just over 20 areas in my constituency were left without exchanges that were capable of delivering broadband. The previous Scottish Executive tried, and the current Scottish Government is trying, to address that injustice through the provision of wireless broadband, delivered by connected communities. I understand that the previous Executive pursued the wireless option because even if the exchanges had been upgraded, a substantial number of people would still have been unable to access broadband because their homes are too far from the exchange for the technology to work. Let there be no doubt that in some parts of the Western Isles a wireless or satellite solution will remain the only feasible option, but a much smaller minority of households would have had to rely on those options if fairness had been exercised when exchanges were enabled elsewhere.

Mr Peacock's motion implies the frailties of connected communities, some of which are borne out in my mailbag as the local MSP. However, judging from the evidence of my mailbag, I venture that the picture is a little more complex than it might at first appear. First, the complaints that I get about broadband come from at least three distinct groups. The first group is people who are impatient for connected communities—the wireless option—to put up masts in their community. Some people may hate wireless broadband but, in the interests of a complete picture, I should say that I have also been grilled by a hall full of people in Harris imploring me to get connected communities to come to their part of the islands immediately.

The second group is people who want improvements to connected communities' service, whether by making it more reliable or cheaper, or by ensuring that someone is on the end of the phone to fix things when they go wrong.

The third group is people who are calling for a boycott of connected communities and, by implication, a boycott of broadband altogether until exchanges are upgraded. That is the smallest group. However, let there be no doubt that a serious mistake was made when the exchanges were not upgraded.

I agree that there are many potentially positive aspects in the "Digital Britain" report. I merely say that, if Lord Carter's review rights the wrongs that exist, it will find a welcome in the Highlands and Islands, but if, to meet the universal broadband obligation, it seeks to impose a levy on the very households that do not enjoy such an entitlement, it will struggle to be taken to people's hearts.

I thank Mr Peacock for bringing the debate to Parliament and for highlighting an issue that is of concern to my constituents.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party 5:45 pm, 3rd February 2010

I, too, congratulate Peter Peacock on securing the debate and on his comments, which were constructive and useful, as has been acknowledged by members of all parties. There is broad cross-party support for what Mr Peacock had to say. However, I am keen that we should not lose sight of the fact that availability of basic broadband in Scotland is at more than 99 per cent, which is attributable directly to interventions by the Scottish Government and the previous Administration and which puts Scotland in a better position than most countries in Europe. Our broadband reach project is delivering a basic service to so-called broadband not-spots and has brought broadband to more than 2,300 Scottish households and businesses in many rural areas. Our current policy of provision of basic broadband to all on demand is better than the policies in most of the rest of the UK.

In addition, with BT, we are making progress on upgrading capacity-limited exchanges, all of which are located in rural areas throughout Scotland. Yesterday, we announced that a further eight exchanges have been added to the programme, which takes the total to 79. As for Murdo Fraser's specific point, the date for the upgrading of the Fern and Menmuir exchanges was confirmed yesterday—I believe that it is May 2010, but I would prefer to confirm that in writing for the member, just to make sure that I have it correct. I am confident that many people in those communities, including householders and businesses that need competitive advantage in the economic downturn, will benefit greatly from the initiative.

I was taken by Cathy Jamieson's points about Rankinston. The pulling together that is already happening there is highly commendable. The key point is that that community might well benefit from LEADER broadband funding when it becomes available. The intention is to allow communities to apply for funding where there is a community benefit element. The community broadband catalysts that are the Scottish Government's telecommunications officials would be happy to provide further information and help make progress on that.

A lot is happening on the technology for the next generation of broadband. Scottish Government officials are at an advanced stage of developing a specification for a research project to help give us an evidence-based broadband policy for the future, which we believe is an utter prerequisite. In the same process, we are ensuring that we make better use of the broadband and information and communication technology that is currently in place in Scotland. We also want to address some of the non-economic factors. I suspect that it was implicit in what many members said that we must address not only economic issues, but issues to do with education, health and care of the elderly.

Peter Peacock's focus on "Digital Britain" is welcome. I will not rehearse the components, but I welcome his support and the fact that he sees, as I do, the potential to leapfrog and take advantage of the various sums that are coming forward. We can do that if we pull together and address the legitimate caveats, concerns and issues that Rob Gibson raised and which I suspect other members have, too. We need to get those issues out in open forum, so I will take Rob Gibson up on that and try to trigger that imagination.

I was particularly taken with the point about taking advantage of Scottish ingenuity and technologies to address Scottish need. I like to think that doing so gives the Scottish companies a better chance of exporting their technologies and selling them elsewhere. When Scottish companies make the sales call to Australia or New Zealand and are asked, "Who is using it back home?", if there is no decent answer, a big trapdoor can open.

I am due to meet the UK minister for digital Britain, Stephen Timms, on 22 February to discuss the interest of Scottish telecoms in "Digital Britain". I will weave into that discussion not just Peter Peacock's comments, but those of other members. I will tell him members' thoughts about focusing on the relocation potential that is provided by broadband and the balance that can be achieved.

I take on board the Western Isles issue. Members will know that we have been listening and conveying that message, as has Highlands and Islands Enterprise. It is reviewing the long-term strategies for the future vis-à-vis connected communities, and is expected to reach a decision on that by April 2010. I think that it has identified strong signals emerging about niche internet service providers and related service suppliers now being attracted to the area to take advantage of the infrastructure that is provided through public sector efforts. It has informed me that there are good prospects of private sector customers in the area being able to take advantage of strong competitive offerings across the connected communities network in the near future. We will watch what happens with interest and see what we can do to drive it forward.

The LEADER programme is coming to a point at which there could be further advantage. David Thompson and Peter Peacock made an eloquent case for a better than pro rata share of funding. We are full square behind that. Peter Peacock mentioned a number of entities, including local councils. It would be helpful if members suggested who they see as the stakeholders who ought to be in the room to debate how we can take the matter forward and get cohesion. Addressing pinch points at the local and regional levels and a process of continuous improvement greatly appeal to me. If we can address the pinch points we will move forward to a better place. In the process, we can address issues that Rob Gibson raised to do with why there is only 90 per cent coverage and what we might do to ensure that there is fairness as we proceed.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I understand the point about 90 per cent coverage and have made it clear to the minister that I am after 100 per cent coverage. However, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that, because we are talking about 90 per cent coverage at the UK level, we should have anything less than 100 per cent coverage in Scotland.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

I am 100 per cent behind that and want to put my efforts behind achieving it. I see that matter in the same way that Jamie Stone sees the relocation potential that broadband provides and in the same way that Alasdair Allan sees broadband—he sees the issue as being survival, growth, connecting our remote areas to the planet and restoring the balance.

I know from my constituency that people aspire to have well-paid and satisfying jobs in wonderful locations that offer a high quality of life, fantastic amenities and great education for their children. We need to build on that, and I will certainly press to ensure that we get the best possible result when I talk to Stephen Timms later in the month.

Meeting closed at 17:53.