High-speed Broadband

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 14 September 2016.

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Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

3. To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making in providing high-speed broadband to rural areas and town centres that are served by exchange-only lines. (S5O-00133)

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government is making substantial progress on the issue. Although delivering fibre broadband to exchange-only lines is more time consuming and complex, our investment through the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has so far made available extended fibre broadband access to more than 170,000 homes and businesses served by exchange-only lines—with more being connected every day—in some of the hardest to reach communities across Scotland, as well as towns and cities.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Permit me to declare an interest in that, since superfast broadband came to my town of Stonehaven over three years ago in a blaze of publicity, I have still been unable to obtain a connection, as I am on an exchange-only line.

Correspondence with digital Scotland has indicated that there is no timescale in place. Given the promises that the Government has made in recent months, would it be possible to achieve a programme and a timescale that will tell individuals who suffer from this disadvantage exactly when their problems will be solved?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I will certainly look into the position of Alex Johnstone’s case. The Scottish Government is committed to delivering 100 per cent superfast broadband across Scotland by 2021. Members will be interested to know that last week we published the prior information notice, which is the latest step in achieving that ambition. I am not entirely certain whether that procedure is appropriate for the problems relating to Alex Johnstone’s house, because I do not know its exact whereabouts, nor how it is classified. I would be happy to receive an invitation to it, which would help to put that right.

It is fair to say that all members across the chamber have had this issue raised by many constituents, and it has been raised by a great deal of businesses. We see that the issue has moved to the top of the agenda in Scotland, both for individuals in their ordinary lives and for businesses, and that is precisely why we have devoted so much public money to tackling the problems, while acknowledging that commercial operators should do their bit and pressuring them to do so. If I am asked more questions about the issue I will be very happy to elaborate further.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Although tens of thousands of homes have benefited from the Scottish Government’s investment in superfast broadband, there is some frustration among homes, particularly in rural areas, that are still without and are seeing other homes getting even faster broadband speeds. Can any pressure be brought to bear on BT to demand that it prioritise such homes, rather than be solely numbers driven?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

We are in a contract with BT in the Highlands and Islands Enterprise area, as Richard Lochhead well knows, and we are in partnership with BT. The contract has proceeded well. In fact, as BT has gained more than the anticipated number of customers that was set out in the contract, under a gainshare clause we have received more money back to reinvest in additional coverage. That is evidence that our contract is fairly well framed and is delivering more benefits than were originally intended.

Of course, Richard Lochhead is absolutely right that some people are still not covered, and for them it is very little consolation that a great deal of people are now receiving coverage and have adequate broadband speeds.

We are pressing BT. Last week, when I met Brendan Dick and representatives of Openreach, I said that Openreach and BT need to improve their performance in Scotland. I was pleased that the tone of the meeting was constructive. In a number of respects, BT has indicated that it wants and plans to do more. I urge all members to join Richard Lochhead and me and make it known to BT and Openreach that Scotland deserves the best possible service. BT, in the position that it operates in, is of course the major player in providing the commercial solutions that are required.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Given concerns regarding BT’s monopoly position in delivering superfast broadband via exchange lines—not always efficiently—will the Scottish Government consider supporting other forms of delivery to homes and businesses, such as white space broadband?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

We are open to various methods of delivering the objective that we all seek. A number of mechanisms are possible, and Kenneth Gibson mentions one that may fall into that category. One condition attached to the United Kingdom Government’s new state-aid scheme for broadband is that all major new public investment in broadband must be delivered via new procurements. That should allow us to drive more competition and deliver a better outcome, and we anticipate that reaching 100 per cent superfast coverage will involve a mix of technologies and delivery models, potentially including TV white space, which is currently being trialled in Orkney as part of the Scottish Government’s demonstrating digital programme.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

The cabinet secretary said in his previous answer that BT had reached more people than had been intended under the contract. What percentage was in the contract? As I understand it, the promise made to Scotland was that 75 per cent of households would be reached by superfast broadband by the end of this year. My understanding is that in parts of the Highlands and Islands the figure is a little over 50 per cent. I would be interested to know what was in the contract.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

It is fair to say that the progress that we have made has been acknowledged by Audit Scotland but there is much more to be done.

I will provide the member with the precise figures in relation to gainshare. I know that she has a serious interest in the issue and I apologise for being unable to meet her at lunch time today because of other matters; I meant to do that privately, but there we are—it is on the record. In all seriousness, I will provide her with full details and I will be happy to discuss that at our meeting, which I look forward to with great pleasure.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I noted with interest the cabinet secretary’s response to the question on the white space project that is being piloted in Orkney

. Obviously, a wide range of technological solutions can help to deliver the superfast broadband commitment of 100 per cent by 2021. Will the cabinet secretary reassure my constituents that, if those in more outlying areas have access to it, they will not pay through the nose for it or pay far more than constituents in other parts of the country will pay?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Liam McArthur raises a fair point, which is well made. Of course, we do not want anyone in Orkney or any other rural or island community to pay more than someone in an urban community. That happens in many other cases. I see Mr Scott nodding sagely even as I speak—he does not really nod in any other fashion.

It is a perfectly fair point to make. I am not passing the buck when I say this, because it is a matter of fact that responsibility for the regulation of telephony rests with the United Kingdom so it is a matter for the Office of Communications and the UK Government, supervising Ofcom. Recently, I had a productive meeting with Sharon White, the chief executive of Ofcom, as a result of which a number of things were to be taken forward. I am grateful for Mr McArthur’s point and will add it to my list.