High-speed Broadband (Access)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 15 March 2016.

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Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

2. To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to ensure that every household in Scotland will have access to high-speed broadband. (S4T-01360)

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Our goal is to ensure that everyone has access to high-speed broadband. Our investment through the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme will deliver at least 95 per cent fibre broadband coverage by 2017. Through community broadband Scotland and a second phase of investment, we will ensure that the remaining 5 per cent have access to superfast broadband as early as possible. If the Scottish National Party is re-elected in May, an SNP Government will ensure that superfast broadband is delivered to 100 per cent of premises across Scotland over the next session.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I have recollections of the Scottish Government making a similar promise prior to the 2011 general election. The Deputy First Minister has now taken to writing to BT to complain about the lack of progress in the Highlands and Islands, although I have been telling him about that for a very long time. I have also invited him to visit innovative projects in my region, which he has not found time to do. What proportion of the people in the Highlands and Islands will have access to high-speed broadband by 2017?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I am happy to provide those figures to Rhoda Grant. She will be aware that nearly 7,000 homes a week are being put on to broadband. She will also be aware of the innovative schemes that the Deputy First Minister has overseen in some of the small isles, for example, to make sure that other methods of ensuring that people have access to broadband are taken forward.

The target to ensure that every single person can access superfast broadband is very ambitious, not least when we consider some of the households that Rhoda Grant is talking about, which can be very remote and very expensive to connect. The Scottish Government’s commitment is to ensure that everybody benefits—it is a universal obligation whereby everybody gets access. Perhaps it would be better if Rhoda Grant were able to support that.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I not only support that, I have fought for it for years. It is disappointing that we have made so little progress.

When I met the Deputy First Minister, he promised to let me know which houses would be covered by the first phase of the roll-out in the Highlands and Islands. I am still waiting for that information, as are my constituents. Why is he reacting now? Could that be because he is just afraid that, during the election, he will be judged on his record of a lack of progress on broadband?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I do not accept that there has been a lack of progress. We have already met our interim target of 85 per cent coverage six months ahead of schedule, and we are working very closely with BT, which was mentioned, to ensure that 95 per cent coverage is achieved on schedule.

As I said, excellent progress has been made. On average, the programme is connecting 7,000 new homes and businesses every week. In fact, we are making such good progress that that has allowed us, if we are elected in May, to commit to extending superfast digital broadband not to 95 per cent, but to 100 per cent of premises across Scotland over the next session. That shows the Government’s ambition, and that should draw support from the rest of the chamber.

Photo of Mike MacKenzie Mike MacKenzie Scottish National Party

I am much more optimistic than Rhoda Grant and have a better insight into the immense technical difficulty we have seen in laying cables—not least submarine cables—to many of our islands. Will the cabinet secretary explain some of the benefits of delivering high-speed broadband across the Highlands and Islands and say whether that will boost the economy?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Mike MacKenzie and Rhoda Grant are right to point out that connectivity is extremely important for rural areas, not just for employment opportunities, but also for educational and health opportunities. That is why we are developing an action plan on mobile connections for rural areas in collaboration with industry. That plan will contain a package of measures designed to set the right conditions to encourage investment in under-served areas.

The potential benefits are transformative for some of the premises and individuals that will be connected. That is why the Scottish Government is putting in the resources to ensure that that happens for everybody in Scotland.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Although remote and hard-to-reach areas remain of great concern, will the cabinet secretary take the opportunity to comment on the many town centres in some of Scotland’s most populated areas that have been bypassed by high-speed broadband because they have direct exchange lines? It seems that BT expects to have Government support to overcome that, but does the cabinet secretary think that the company should be doing that on a commercial basis?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

There are particular issues in town and city centres, including here in Edinburgh, in Rose Street, for example, where state-aid rules do not allow BT to do the kind of things that we are working with the company to do in other areas. I accept that there are issues sometimes. We are working with BT in relation to gain share funding—I am not sure whether Alex Johnstone is familiar with that funding, but essentially it is the benefits that have been accrued from the programme so far—to ensure that we roll the programme out to those areas where that has proved difficult. Sometimes it will remain difficult because of state-aid rules. There has been some misunderstanding about that.

This morning I visited a cabinet that is being developed in northern Edinburgh, which will provide people with the ability to access broadband. I should say that that is all it does—people will still have to subscribe to a broadband provider in order to use that facility.

As I said in response to Mike MacKenzie and Rhoda Grant, it is our intention to have 100 per cent of premises across Scotland served by broadband over the course of the next session. That must include dealing with some of the difficulties mentioned by Alex Johnstone.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Reference was made to the subsea cabling work undertaken by BT, although it is not the only company that is undertaking cabling. Will the cabinet secretary speak to the Deputy First Minister and the Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism about pressing SSE and other utilities companies to consider laying fibre when they undertake cabling work, so that we do not miss that opportunity?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Liam McArthur makes an interesting point. I will take up those issues with the Deputy First Minister and the energy minister. When we are involved with large, and sometimes very expensive, infrastructure works, it is often the case that we can achieve more than one thing at a time. For example, the ability to lay fibre along the Borders railway was something that we looked at very closely and managed to move along. I am happy to raise those issues on Liam McArthur’s behalf.

Photo of Dennis Robertson Dennis Robertson Scottish National Party

Will the cabinet secretary expand on which other companies, such as mobile phone companies, will provide superfast broadband? Are you in discussions with them to share masts? Are you in discussions with local authorities who will buy into those plans?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Those discussions are under way. Perhaps even more important, we are in discussion with Ofcom to ensure that the Scottish Government’s new access to Ofcom is used for the benefit of mobile users across the country. Dennis Robertson raises the issue of mast sharing, which is something that we are trying to encourage. We are also looking at some of the other industry demands in relation to the way in which the planning system deals with applications for mobile masts. That is a controversial area.

The issues that Dennis Robertson raises are under active consideration and we are starting to see a way forward to make further progress. I am more than happy to keep him up to date with the other companies involved and the way in which they are helping us to achieve that progress.