I am pleased to open this debate on Scotland’s digital connectivity. I welcome the broad consensus across the Parliament in support of high-quality digital connectivity for all of Scotland. We all want a Scotland that prepares our children to join a digitally skilled workforce, delivers digitally innovative public services to all our communities and delivers inclusive economic growth, with businesses in our rural and urban communities flourishing. We want a Scotland that ensures that we are fully digitally connected.
That is vital to our economic prosperity as a country, and it will also result in significant social and environmental benefits.
Increased access to fast and reliable broadband and mobile services enables greater flexibility in the way that we work. By enabling people to work from home, for example, we reduce the pressure on our transport routes, which actively helps us to achieve our world-leading carbon reduction plans.
Improved connectivity in our rural areas will enable us not only to boost tourism but to provide a platform for businesses to transform the way that they work. Better digital connection means more efficient and effective health provision in our rural and island communities. It will also support the work of emergency services to keep people safe in the most remote locations. For staff working in sectors such as forestry and aquaculture in remote areas, there are obvious health and safety benefits.
Greater connectivity also opens up and improves employment opportunities for those with caring commitments. Businesses in the hospitality sector can market themselves far more effectively with good digital connectivity and provide visitors with the same levels of connectivity that they have at home and increasingly take for granted. Tourist attractions can embrace the latest technology by using augmented reality to transform the visitor experience.
It is important to acknowledge that Scotland traditionally lagged behind the rest of the United Kingdom in broadband coverage. Overcoming the challenge of our geography and rurality required that we take a different approach. That is what the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has delivered. I thank all the partners in the DSSB, who have worked with us to transform the availability of broadband throughout the country and bridge that gap.
As the tables that were published this week in an answer to a parliamentary question from Gillian Martin show, commercial investment alone would have delivered fibre broadband coverage to just 66 per cent of premises, largely in urban Scotland. Had that been the case, with no DSSB, coverage in the Highlands and Islands would have been just 21 per cent and there would have been no planned commercial coverage at all in Orkney, Shetland or the Western Isles.
The good news is that around 890,000 additional premises now have access to fibre broadband through the digital Scotland roll-out. Our internal data, as well as that of thinkbroadband—the same independent analysts that the UK Government uses—shows that, by the end of last year, we had exceeded our target of 95 per cent fibre broadband coverage across Scotland.
In fact, the vast majority of people in Scotland can now access superfast broadband at 30 megabits per second or above. This week, Ofcom released new data taken from January this year that showed that, since its previous report, superfast broadband coverage in Scotland had increased by 4 percentage points to 91 per cent and halved the gap between Scotland and the overall UK total from 4 per cent to 2 per cent. That was the single largest increase of any nation in the UK.
On top of that, thinkbroadband’s data, which purports to give a more up-to-date view of coverage, shows that superfast coverage in Scotland is now above 93 per cent, which is within two percentage points of the overall UK total. That gap, which was 10 per cent in 2014 and around 19 per cent in 2012, has reduced to just 2 percentage points. As the Labour amendment says, that gap has been significantly reduced, according to the independent, impartial analysts that are used by us and by our colleagues in the UK Government. No matter what source is referenced, it is simply a matter of fact that Scotland has caught up dramatically with the rest of the UK.
Although we have achieved our original 95 per cent target, which was for fibre broadband through DSSB, I recognise that there is more to be done. I will not be satisfied until every home and business has access to superfast broadband at our stipulated level of 30Mbps. I also want to state, as I have said many times before, that for those people who still do not have that, it is small comfort that many others are getting it or have got it. I understand that. I recognise and accept people’s frustration, and I realise that the promise of achieving 100 per cent coverage by the end of 2021 might just add to the frustration of those who do not yet have superfast broadband.
However, it is only our ambition that will remove that frustration. We could have stopped at 95 per cent. We could have decided that the UK Government’s broadband universal service obligation, which is set at just 10Mbps, was sufficient for our rural communities, but we did not do so. That is why we have committed an initial £600 million to the first phase of the reaching 100 per cent programme. The announcement of that investment during December’s budget was momentous, because there is no other such commitment anywhere else in the UK.
I am determined to ensure that R100 focuses on our hardest-to-reach rural areas—the Liberal Democrat amendment mentions that—leaving coverage gaps in urban areas to be filled by commercial suppliers in the first instance. I put on record that I am greatly encouraged by the emerging plans from the likes of BT, Virgin Media, CityFibre and Vodafone, among others, which suggest that that is deed the correct approach.
The scale of our investment and our ambition is attracting interest from a wide range of telecoms suppliers across the UK and Europe. We are talking about a huge public investment, and it is vital that we get the right deal for Scotland. Therefore, the procurement will take time, but the dialogue that we are currently undertaking with the various bidders is key to getting the right outcome. Our aim is to have suppliers in place early next year.
Our engagement with local authorities through the DSSB programme has been exemplary. In fact, the model that we have used has been recognised by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as an example of best practice, and we are continuing with that approach. I have already set out our plans at the convention of the Highlands and Islands. Crucially, I have secured the support of all those local authority administrations for the call that we have made to the UK Government to pay its fair share towards the R100 programme. I did the same thing at the meeting of the south of Scotland alliance that was held a few weeks ago, which I attended with the Deputy First Minister.
In addition, this week I announced the setting up of two strategic groups to inform the delivery of the R100 programme. One group will cover the north lot of the programme, and the other will cover the central and south lots. The groups will involve the Scottish Government and key local agencies sharing and exchanging information that will help with the future roll-out of the programme. I plan to attend the first meeting of the north group on Monday morning.
The Scottish Government understands well the expertise that our councils, as community leaders, bring to the table, for example on road works and planning matters, and we want to utilise that important resource. An opportunity will be provided to discuss with them how our R100 approach complements their plans on digital connectivity.
The R100 programme will differ from the DSSB programme in some key respects. The initial procurement will be split across three regional lots that are designed to maximise competition. That is vital to drive value and innovation.
The initial phase of R100 will extend a future-proofed, accessible fibre network into remote rural areas and provide the essential platform for delivering superfast broadband for all for decades to come and for a variety of technologies. To ensure that that happens, it is a mandated requirement of the procurement to deliver new backhaul in particular rural and island locations across Scotland. We are purposely targeting the funds where they are needed most in rural Scotland.
The initial investment will deliver superfast access to a significant proportion of the premises to be targeted, but we do not expect it to deliver 100 per cent coverage on its own. There will be further phases through which we will ensure that superfast broadband reaches each and every premise in Scotland. We expect that to involve a wide range of superfast technologies, supported by a national voucher scheme that is available to individuals and communities.
All of that activity is reserved to Westminster. As I said earlier, the Scottish Government has had to become active in that in the absence of a coherent UK-wide strategy for rural connectivity. That has meant that the Scottish Government has had to take the lead, given the economic importance of rural connectivity, and that is why we committed £600 million to the initial phase of our R100 programme. The UK Government’s contribution to R100 is £21 million, which is just 3 per cent of the total funding.
There were two programmes—one in the Highlands and Islands and one in the rest of Scotland. The total programme cost just over £400 million, and the UK Government contributed £100 million of that. The Scottish public sector, comprising the Scottish Government, local authorities and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, put in £164 million—
I think that that figure is correct, but I will check it later. The UK Government put in a solid amount of money—I made that clear when I gave evidence to the UK Scottish Affairs Committee and explicitly went through those figures—but the public sector contribution across Scotland as a whole was rather greater than that. As I said, I think that the figure was £164 million, but I will ask for that to be checked and corrected if it is out by a couple of million pounds. In addition, I think that there was around £10 million or £11 million from the European Union. Those were the figures.
As that point has been raised, £100 million is perhaps around two thirds of £164 million. However, instead of getting a two thirds contribution, we are getting just 3 per cent for R100. Any fair-minded person could reach only one conclusion: that such a dismal and paltry contribution to R100 is unfair, particularly given—as the UK Government and Matt Hancock accept, I think—that broadband is, like defence and foreign affairs, a reserved matter.
To contribute just 3 per cent when the UK Government is responsible for that matter of public policy can only be seen as unfair. There is an opportunity today for us to send a reasonable message from across the Parliament to Westminster that we believe that the UK Government should make a fairer contribution. If we speak with one voice, it is entirely within the art of the possible that a reasonable negotiation will result.
Before we spend the next three hours on the myth that the issue is solely a reserved matter, I say that the cabinet secretary knows fine well that there was an agreement between the Scottish Government and the UK Government that the Scottish Government would deliver the contracts for DSSB. The idea that the matter is entirely reserved and that the Scottish Government is simply intervening of its own accord is absolutely a myth, and we should put that myth to bed now, at the beginning of the debate, before we waste two and a half hours talking about it.
It is not a matter of any dubiety that digital telephony and the internet are reserved matters. Indeed, if Mr Greene wants to check schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, as I have done, he will see that those words are specifically mentioned.
Therefore, there is no dubiety.
I am answering the points, one by one.
Further, Mr Hancock accepted that the matter is reserved when he appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee earlier this week. Therefore, when the member claims that it is wrong to say that the issue is purely reserved, I am afraid that that is factually wrong.
Mr Greene also referred to the DSSB. I would have preferred it if the UK Government had met all of its responsibilities, but at least it contributed a reasonable amount to the DSSB of £100 million, in comparison to our £164 million. That cannot be said about the current contract, which is vital for rural and island Scotland. Without that investment, there will be no high-speed broadband to the most rural and island communities. We cannot expect commercial providers to invest, because there is simply not a market rationale for doing so. Therefore, public investment must happen, because otherwise there will not be rural connectivity. My argument is simple: this is a reserved matter, and the UK has stumped up before—albeit not for its full responsibilities, but at least for a reasonably substantial amount—but this time, it is putting in a piffling, paltry and stingy 3 per cent. Surely no reasonable person could conclude that that is fair.
I was keen to deal with that issue thoroughly, and I think that I have perhaps gone over my time. I look forward to the debate. I am genuinely interested in trying to maintain a consensus among all parties, particularly given that, as I said to the select committee in London, I would like there to be a UK standing committee on digital connectivity, in which the UK Government and the devolved Administrations play a part towards achieving what I think are shared objectives. Those objectives could not be more important to rural and island Scotland and to their counterparts in the rest of the UK.
That the Parliament acknowledges that the gap in broadband coverage between Scotland and the rest of the UK has been bridged in recent years; recognises the role played by the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme, including local authority partners, which has now exceeded its 95% fibre broadband coverage target and will continue rolling out throughout 2018 and into 2019; notes the investment of £600 million by the Scottish Government in the Reaching 100% (R100) programme, which seeks to provide access to superfast broadband to all homes and businesses, including in remote, rural and island communities, and calls on the UK Government to increase its funding contribution to R100 from just 3% of the total and ensure that Scotland sees tangible financial, social and environmental benefits from the broadband Universal Service Obligation.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to open the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives, as the party’s spokesman on the digital economy.
The importance of digital connectivity should not be underestimated. When people miss out on the benefits of good connectivity, they miss out on the benefits of modern society. The Scottish National Party Government’s slow progress in rolling out superfast broadband to those who need it most is resulting in communities, particularly in rural areas, missing out on those benefits.
In this modern digital world, poor connectivity has an impact on the economy, on our health and on our society. With technology continuing to change at a hugely rapid pace, we must ensure that our digital economy has the strong foundation of connectivity that it requires. Digital connectivity is pivotal to the Scottish economy moving forward. We are moving into the world of big data, where connection to national networks is not just desirable, but is essential when it comes not only to the day-to-day operations of our businesses but to the everyday lives of everybody living in Scotland.
I will cover those topics later in my speech. However, I point out right now that Scotland has already benefited from nearly 2.5 times more funding per head for superfast broadband than England has.
Fergus Ewing’s SNP Government has failed to prioritise and roll out broadband across parts of Scotland where there is no or poor connectivity. That has serious implications for industry, home workers and members of rural communities, who rely on connection to the internet for personal and professional use, and it is potentially impacting negatively on the economic sustainability of rural Scotland. The closure of local bank branches also has a disproportionately detrimental effect on rural residents, who are now compelled to rely on computers and mobile phone apps for which a strong broadband signal is necessary.
Digital connectivity also has implications for the health of the general public and the availability of vital health services in rural areas. In my constituency, as a result of inadequate broadband provision, the Kirkcudbright medical practice has had to have medical records physically carried back and forth between practices because staff cannot access them online.
Fergus Ewing often stands in the chamber and crows about the 95 per cent of people who have broadband access, but what about the have-nots? The latest Ofcom figures show that progress is worryingly slow in areas with the poorest broadband availability. It is clear that the SNP Government has widened the digital divide through its inability, or lack of desire, to accelerate roll-out of broadband where it is needed most. In doing so, it has widened the social, economic and democratic deficits between rural and central-belt Scotland.
Is Finlay Carson aware that, thanks to investment from the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, coverage in his area, Dumfries and Galloway, has increased by 62 per cent? In 2014, fibre coverage stood at only 20.4 per cent, according to thinkbroadband, but by the end of the contract that was delivered in Scotland by the Scottish Government, along with the UK Government funding that I mentioned, it had gone up to 82 per cent. How can he claim that we have somehow completely failed when his constituency has so manifestly benefited?
The cabinet secretary fails to recognise that I welcome the improvements—I am simply saying that they have not been quick enough in the places where they are needed most. I will move on to that later in my speech.
The motion that is before us today is disingenuous, because it is clear that Scotland still lags behind the rest of the UK. Indeed, Fergus Ewing admitted in committee that although the SNP Government had reached its 95 per cent fibre connection target—which I welcome—that in itself does not necessarily enable superfast speeds.
This Government alone has decided where and when to spend money that has come forward. However, the results stand in stark contrast to those in England and Wales, where the digital divide is smaller and better progress has been made. The Scottish Government has failed to maximise the funding from the UK Government. For example, we are trailing behind on full-fibre coverage. Fibre to the premises, or FTTP, provides a fibre-optic connection all the way from the telephone exchange or cabinet to the business or home, but only one in 100 premises in Scotland has it, in comparison with one in 25 in England and Wales. In addition, Scotland lags behind England and Wales in the provision of superfast speeds above 24Mbps.
Most important is that Scotland has a larger proportion of premises that fall below the universal service obligation speed of 10Mbps. Here, 5.5 per cent of premises still have slower speeds than the USO specifies, in comparison with 3.2 per cent in England and 3.98 per cent in Wales. Moreover, six out of the 10 worst constituencies for download speeds are in Scotland, and no areas in Scotland fall within the top 10 areas with the best speeds.
In spite of its multitude of failings, the SNP has tried to claim credit for UK Government and private funding on superfast broadband. However, in reality, £126 million is being funded by BT, and—which the cabinet secretary alluded to earlier—£283 million is being funded by the DCMS, the European regional development fund and Scottish local authorities, while the Scottish Government is contributing only 15 per cent of the total.
It is clear that, as usual, the SNP is good at sharing statistics that portray Government successes, while being unwilling to own up to its mistakes and failings. In fact, anyone who looks at this year’s SNP Government budget will quickly realise that, rather than the Government increasing the budget for 2018, its capital connectivity investment has dropped by more than 80 per cent.
We continue to hear about the budget for R100 from 2019 to 2022, but right here, right now there is a missed opportunity, and 2018 essentially constitutes a wasted year for broadband roll-out in rural Scotland, in particular.
The cabinet secretary may boast of achieving his 95 per cent fibre broadband target, but surely he must recognise that, for all the talk, the reality on the ground in constituencies across the country is very different, and the digital divide has never been greater. We can shout about uplifts in speeds, but those improvements affect those who already get superfast speeds. There are still more than 130,000 premises in Scotland that are on 10Mbps or below, which in 2018 is just not good enough.
I thank Emma Harper for that intervention, because it gives me the opportunity to say that we have—as she well knows—constituents in Galloway and West Dumfries and South Scotland who do not have any connectivity at the moment, although at least we have a guarantee that something will happen over the next year, under the universal service obligation. Through R100, other constituents might have to wait not just until 2021, but until the end of 2021.
Improvements might have been made for people who live in the central belt who already have speeds that allow them to do most things. However, for people who live in rural and remote areas, there has been unsatisfactory investment. For those who are living with speeds of 10Mbps or below, there has been an improvement of only 1 per cent since May 2017—a meagre improvement of 21,000 more premises in the past year. That is hardly a statistic to be proud of, and for my constituents and constituents across Scotland it will only reinforce the point that on this issue, as on so many others, rural Scotland takes second place to the SNP’s preferred central belt. Just as the SNP is failing to close the attainment gap in our schools, it is failing to close the digital gap.
Community broadband Scotland, with its red tape, has failed to deliver any significant improvement to individuals or businesses. Given the right guidance and leadership, it could have gone a long way towards supporting some of the hardest-to-reach areas, but it has failed to do so.
The Scottish Conservatives are committed to prioritising and accelerating rural superfast broadband roll-out. The introduction of the universal service obligation by 2020, which was announced by the UK Government, is a major step forward for broadband right across rural areas.
As the member for the rural constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries, I have many cases in my inbox of businesses that are continually let down in respect of when superfast broadband will be rolled out. Of particular relevance to the tourism sector is the fact that Auchenlarie, Brighouse and Whitecairn holiday parks in my constituency are all still in the dark as to when they will be able to deliver superfast speeds to holiday guests, which is having an impact on bookings right now.
Likewise, the owner of the Galloway Activity Centre has to travel to a local hotel to pay his staff and check bookings. If we look up his postcode on the Digital Scotland website we can see that it says that his cabinet is enabled for fibre, but he is too far from the cabinet to get an increased connection speed.
The website also states:
“We are working hard to bring faster broadband to as many homes and businesses as possible.”
The date for superfast broadband is not available: it is unknown. There are no timescales, other than a commitment by the Scottish Government that it will happen some time before the end of 2021. That is three and a half years away. I am sure that everyone in the chamber agrees that that is totally unacceptable.
Thank goodness that we have the commitment for at least 10Mbps everywhere. The date for that is still more than a year away, but having a connection is better than having no connection.
I have been in correspondence with a company in Dalbeattie, which is having to commit thousands of pounds—
Thank you. That company is going to invest thousands of pounds because it does not know when superfast broadband can be rolled out.
I am aware of the unprecedented technical and planning issues that affect infrastructure roll-out, but given the amount of time for which we have been doing this, uncertainties should be addressed and timescales should be easier to predict.
“broadband coverage is important to communities and businesses across Scotland; recognises the role played by the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme as part of a wide range of measures being taken by both the UK and Scottish governments to roll out broadband across Scotland; acknowledges that the DSSB programme aims to provide fibre coverage to 95% of premises; notes that superfast broadband speeds in Scotland lag behind England and Wales, with a digital gap widening between urban and rural Scotland; welcomes the fact that £100.8 million of this funding has already come from the UK Government and that £62.8 million has come from the Scottish Government; notes that the Scottish Government agreed to take delivery of UK funding and manage broadband delivery in Scotland following mutual agreement between both governments; notes that, despite the R100 programme target, the Scottish Government has not committed any of the proposed £600 million to reach 100% in the 2018 Scottish Budget; understands that the R100 programme was initially planned to be delivered by 2021 but that the completion date has been changed until the end of that year, and notes that the UK Government allocated funding back in 2014 for Phase 2 but that the Scottish Government has been unable to provide any detail on how this investment will be spread across future budget years 2018-21.”
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer.
Every aspect of society and our lives is changing as a result of technology. Access to broadband when and where we want it is becoming an essential part of modern life. Research by Which? has found that nine out of 10 people view a broadband connection as a necessity, alongside water and energy utilities, and food and housing. That is a higher proportion than those who identified a television, a phone, a car or savings as necessities. We can see why. Broadband opens up new opportunities for learning, leisure, health, communication and business.
As someone who represents a large rural area, my mailbag can testify that, for many people, the reality of accessing broadband is often very different from the rhetoric on it. There is the hotelier who was told that to compete, they needed to focus on online bookings, but who often could not access those bookings because their broadband routinely cut out.
There is the businessman with an exchange-only line, who has been waiting years simply to be told that he will, but not when, be able to connect to fibre broadband. There is the family who could see the shiny new green cabinet at the end of their street for months, but no one from digital Scotland or BT Openreach could tell them, even to within a few months, a date on which it was likely that they would be able access fibre broadband, until literally the last minute.
There is the farmer who contacted me, frustrated that no one could ever tell him whether he would be in the dreaded 5 per cent who were never going to be part of the 95 per cent Government fibre broadband target, so that he could decide whether he should focus on making his own arrangements through, for example, satellite broadband. There is the family who signed up for speeds up to 30Mbps based on the provider’s advert, only to discover that, like nine out of 10 people, the maximum speed advertised was something that they could never get because their home was so far away from the fibre-enabled cabinet that the copper—not fibre optic—cable had to stretch to.
I could go on about the frustrations of my constituents when it comes to broadband; I am sure that other members will have many similar examples. To be fair, the cabinet secretary acknowledged those frustrations in his opening comments, but unfortunately those frustrations—those realities—are not reflected in the wording of the Government’s motion.
The Government continues to define what happens in Scotland based on comparing it with the rest of the UK and with England in particular, arguing that the gap in broadband coverage between Scotland and the rest of the UK has been bridged in recent years. That gap has certainly been reduced; I recognise the progress and congratulate all parties involved, including local authorities in Dumfries and Galloway and in the Highlands and Islands, which made significant financial contributions to the work to deliver the improvements. However, a gap remains.
According to the website thinkbroadband, 95.1 per cent of the UK had availability of UK-defined superfast broadband of speeds of 24Mbps or more in the first quarter of 2018, compared with 93.3 per cent in Scotland. The figures will, of course, vary depending on what terms one uses to describe broadband and how it is defined. Herein lies one of the problems in the debate—the interchangeable use of phrases to suit the arguments that people want to make.
The current Scottish Government target of 95 per cent is for fibre broadband. That is not the same as superfast broadband, but just to make sure that the public are left thoroughly confused, the digital Scotland website calls the target one for high-speed fibre broadband.
I very much welcome the tone of Mr Smyth’s speech. On the specific point that he raises about the possibility of confusion, he is quite right. To dispel that confusion, I confirm our commitment to rural and island Scotland that every house and every business will have access to superfast broadband at 30Mbps—a higher target than the DSSB and one that I hope Mr Smyth will welcome.
That is absolutely a commitment that I welcome. I will deal with that specific point later in my speech, and the difference between the previous 95 per cent target and the far more appropriate and more welcome target that is set out in R100, both in relation to the percentage of coverage and to a specific commitment on speeds of 30Mbps and above.
However, we have to be clear that at the moment, Scotland does not have 95 per cent superfast broadband coverage. That is one of the frustrations that the public have. They believed that that was what they were going to get when that 95 per cent target was rolled out, and they have been left disappointed in many areas. The local variations within Scotland can be quite significant.
In my home area, Dumfries and Galloway, there is a 10 per cent difference between the proportion of people who have fibre broadband and those who have superfast broadband speeds. In Orkney, access to fibre broadband sits at 82 per cent, but the availability of superfast speeds is just 65 per cent.
It is not just rural Scotland where there is a digital divide: access to the internet is lower in many of our most deprived areas. The Scottish Government’s own household survey—albeit that it was in 2016—showed that 27 per cent of households in the most deprived areas had no home internet access, compared with 15 per cent of households elsewhere.
Availability of broadband is not the same as being able to access it. A report by Ofcom last year found that although, at the time, 87 per cent of Scottish premises had availability of superfast broadband of 30Mbps, only 39 per cent had active connections that were delivering superfast speeds.
Even those who can afford the often hefty cost of a superfast broadband subscription are not guaranteed the headline speeds for which they thought they had signed up. Too often, average speeds fall far short of the maximums claimed—an issue that I know the Advertising Standards Agency is rightly taking action to address.
Whether in rural areas or deprived communities, too many people are being excluded from the opportunities that superfast broadband can provide. R100 is a chance to address those shortcomings and to be clear with the public that everyone will have access to superfast broadband at speeds that make a difference.
The commitment to 100 per cent coverage and a clear minimum speed of 30 Mbps is a step forward, beyond the inadequate 10 Mbps speed that is proposed in the UK Government’s universal service obligation. The commitment to an outside-in approach is also welcome.
What we now need, however, is the detail and a clear timetable that shows exactly how people in rural areas and in our deprived communities will no longer be disadvantaged and, for once, will be put first.
I want to confirm, both to Mr Smyth and to Mr Rumbles, who included the point in his amendment, that as soon as the tender process is completed, we will provide as much detail as we can on regional roll-out of the programme.
I fully understand that all members want to know the detail, but it will not be possible to provide that until the tender process is completed early next year. It shall be done as soon as possible.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that commitment, because it was a weakness in the previous programme that people did not know when their community was likely to have access to fibre broadband. I welcome the commitment to having a clear timetable.
We need to know that people in the most difficult-to-reach premises, which were not included in the initial first-phase procurement, will not be left behind. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that that is the case.
It is not just when it comes to broadband that Scotland has a digital divide. Many of our communities are being left behind due to poor mobile connectivity, with my own South Scotland region plagued by so-called not-spots, where a mobile connection— never mind 4G—is simply not available. I can tell Parliament today that the new £212 million Dumfries and Galloway royal infirmary on the edge of the town of Dumfries—hardly the most remote place in the world—still does not have mobile phone coverage five months after it opened.
There have been some improvements in connectivity across Scotland from mobile network operators, partly driven by compliance with Ofcom’s requirements for spectrum use. The Scottish Government’s new 4G infill programme is certainly a step in the right direction.
There is a huge opportunity with the emergency service mobile communication programme, which has real potential to improve services in our rural communities if we ensure that additional commercial coverage can piggyback on the masts that will be developed to deliver the emergency services programme. Beyond funding future-proofing of mast upgrades so that they can provide commercial coverage, the Scottish Government also has a role to play in ensuring that our planning system does not act as a barrier to improved mobile connectivity. It is a huge issue for our constituents.
It is clear that progress has been made in connecting our communities better, and we should recognise that. Scotland, however, still has a digital divide. Too many of our rural and deprived communities have slow or no broadband. There are parts of my region where 4G is a type of football pitch and certainly not something that people will get on their mobile phones any time soon.
The motion from the Government and the amendment from the Conservatives partly acknowledge some of the challenges, but are too much about trying to blame each other for the digital divide. The lack of adequate broadband and mobile coverage in too many of our communities is too often being used as an extension of the constitutional tit for tat between the two Governments. That is not what our constituents want.
Our constituents want to see both Governments working together.
I therefore move amendment S5M-12010.3, to insert after “island communities”:
“; calls on the Scottish Government to publish a full and clear regional timetable for the roll-out of superfast broadband; further calls for R100 to prioritise the remote, rural and island communities that currently endure unreliable, intermittent or no broadband connections; recognises that the Scottish Government's participation in delivering improved broadband, thus far, has been slow, particularly for those areas with the worst performing services, and that the cost of delivering the R100 programme may be significantly more than it has publicised.”
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I appreciate those comments.
We have heard many assertions about digital connectivity already in the debate, and many promises from the Scottish Government on the issue since it came to power more than a decade ago. The first thing that I want to do is test the credibility of those assertions, both those in the motion before us and those made by the cabinet secretary in his speech.
On 25 November last year, the cabinet secretary said:
“As a direct result of our investment, more than 800,000 premises now have access to fibre broadband, while we are on track to deliver 95 per cent coverage by the end of this year.”
Time and time again, we have heard Scottish Government ministers claim credit for the success of the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, as happened again this afternoon—[
.] I think that Mr Stevenson will have an opportunity to speak in the debate, and I look forward to hearing his speech.
Not once have we heard the Scottish Government acknowledge that the vast majority of funding for the programme came from the investment that the United Kingdom coalition Government delivered in 2013 and 2014, from the European Union, from local authorities and from British Telecommunications. That investment included Scotland’s share of £530 million from Broadband Delivery UK.
This week, in
Let me reiterate what I have said in this debate, in the select committee and in the Scottish Parliament on previous occasions: the DSSB contract was a partnership, and parties put in different amounts. The UK put in £100 million, the Scottish public sector, including the Scottish Government, HIE and local authorities, put in £164 million, and if my maths is correct, BT put in £126 million. I have made that absolutely clear.
The investment was made by the Scottish Government: because we were running the main contract, it is correct, factually, to say that the investment was made by us. However, I have always acknowledged that the contribution of the UK Government was £100 million. I have never hidden that. I have always made it clear, and I do so again. I hope that Mr Rumbles is now happy.
I am always happy, and never more so than when I am holding the cabinet secretary to account in this Parliament.
As a matter of fact, the Scottish Government’s direct investment in the digital Scotland broadband programme comes to less than a fifth of the total. We can agree on the figures; it is how the programme is presented that is the issue.
In January, thinkbroadband reported that 93.4 per cent of homes in Scotland had access to fibre broadband, and two weeks ago the cabinet secretary issued a quite astonishing press release congratulating the Scottish Government on reaching an unprecedented 95 per cent fibre coverage.
The extraordinary thing about that is that I well remember the cabinet secretary coming to the chamber on 19 December last year to give us that very same fact. Either he was mistaken then or he has a very short memory. Perhaps—worse—he thinks that we all have short memories.
It is unfortunate that even in areas where new cabling has been laid, the existing poor service has often not improved one iota. In January this year, it was estimated that there is superfast broadband coverage in Scotland of between 87 and 89 per cent. Ofcom’s report this week put the proportion at 91 per cent, with 95 per cent coverage in England. Those are the facts. The cabinet secretary must now start to show real progress for people in rural areas, to ensure that rural communities are not left behind.
I believe in giving credit where credit is due. I welcome the Scottish Government’s £600 million investment in the R100 programme, even though responsibility for the area is reserved. Given new 4G and alternative technologies, I have no doubt that the target is achievable. What I doubt is whether it will be achieved within the timescale and with the earmarked resources.
The cabinet secretary has said that the Scottish Government will
“announce initial deployment plans early in 2019, once contracts have been agreed.”—[
, 26 April 2018; S5W-15964.]
What customers want to know is when they will become part of that roll-out, which is why the Liberal Democrat amendment in my name calls on the Scottish Government to publish a
“clear regional timetable for the roll-out”.
I sincerely hope that the UK Government has more to bring to the table, but it is the Scottish Government that must now demonstrate that its commitment to expanding rural broadband is more open and transparent. Customers want to know when they will receive superfast broadband, and the Scottish Government needs to be able to tell them.
Despite the development of new technologies, and despite speeds getting faster and faster for some people, businesses and residents outside Scotland’s cities have too often been left behind.
Internet speeds in some parts of rural Aberdeenshire, as Mr Stevenson must know, are woeful, and many other parts of the north-east are not much better.
Presiding Officer, I heard what the cabinet secretary said earlier on, just before you took over the chair, which was that he would publish what he was able to. That is not good enough: we need a very clear detailed and published roll-out programme that consumers can check to see when they will be connected over the next three and a half years. They do not want to have to listen to vague promises that they will be connected—they want to know when. If they do not know that, many people will be left in the dark. I urge the cabinet secretary—even if he does nothing else—to put that right.
I move amendment S5M-12010.1, to insert, after “island communities”:
“; calls on the Scottish Government to publish a full and clear regional timetable for the roll-out of superfast broadband; further calls for R100 to prioritise the remote, rural and island communities that currently endure unreliable, intermittent or no broadband connections; recognises that the Scottish Government’s participation in delivering improved broadband, thus far, has been slow, particularly for those areas with the worst performing services, and that the cost of delivering the R100 programme may be significantly more than it has publicised”.
Communications is a very important part of the world economy and every aspect of the world. The first great step forward in digital communications took place 2,000 years ago, when the Romans introduced wig-wag, which was a hilltop system that carried a signal from Londinium to Roma and back in the course of a single day. That replaced the three months that it would have taken, by sea and by cleft stick, before then.
When the telegraph came in, in the early 1800s, there was another quantum leap. Of course, when Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone system for the first time, in 1876, that took us to another place—voice. Only five years later, the telephone directory for Edinburgh had 300 connections in it. Scotland has been a leader in communications in many ways in the past.
In his opening remarks, the cabinet secretary spoke about there being broad consensus on the need for broadband. I am delighted that no one has attempted to break that consensus, because we all know and assert its importance.
The first digital communications system on which I worked, when I worked in technology, was in the 1960s. It ran at 110 bits per second—not kilobits or megabits—but we were able to connect all 400 branches of the bank to a real-time data inquiry and collection system at that speed. We have moved on rapidly with mobile technology. The first digital system, GSM—the global system for mobile communications—came in in 1990. I was one of a group of 12 people who piloted it in the UK. When I was the manager of the Bank of Scotland’s data centre 30 years ago, my telecoms bill was £10 million. I could buy that service now for a few hundred pounds. Things progress all the time.
Before I go on too much, I want to rein in Fin Carson slightly. I heard, with delight, that the UK Government will deliver a speed of 10 megabytes per second to everyone. That would be eight times its current promise, because that is for 10 megabits, and not 10 megabytes. I also want to say that smartphones do not rely on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 standard, which is for wi-fi, but on high performance data mining and applications, or HPDMA; enhanced data GSM environment, or EDGE; and general packet radio service, or GPRS. In other words, they use different communications technologies, so wi-fi is really quite irrelevant.
I may come back to Mr Carson later.
“widening between urban and rural Scotland”.
Let us look at some numbers. In 2012, for cities, the penetration of fibre-enabled premises ranged from 95 per cent in Dundee to 59 per cent in Stirling. At the other end of the scale, in Aberdeenshire, as Mr Rumbles referred to, we were at 25.1 per cent, which was 33.9 percentage points behind the worst city and 74.9 percentage points behind the best. Argyll and Bute was on 26 per cent, Moray was on 28 per cent, Highland was on 23 per cent and the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland were on zero. Has the gap widened? Well, clearly not.
Argyll and Bute has advanced by 54.8 points, Moray by 66.2 points, Highland by 62.4 points, Western Isles by 75.9 points, Orkney by 74.7 points, Shetland by 79.6 points and Aberdeenshire—the council area in which Peter Chapman, Mike Rumbles and I live—by 65.6 points. In only one city has it grown by more than 20 points—in Stirling, which was bottom of the pack, it has grown by 34.6 points. I have juggled the numbers left-handed, right-handed, two-handed, off the floor, off the wall and every which way, and rural areas are catching up with cities every single day.
More fundamentally, I expect that, by 2021, people such me, who are in the 5 per cent who are not fibred—and indeed who do not have DAB radio, do not have Freeview, have no mobile phone signal and cannot see either of the data satellites because of terrain issues—will be fibre at the premises. I expect that most of the R100 will end up in that position. That means that rural areas will have 300Mbps megabits capability if they have fibre at the premises. We will actually be ahead of urban areas, if we are lucky.
We need to see what comes from the contracts, but there is a huge difference between getting fibre to the premises, which is a very likely outcome of the tender that is out there—that is what I hear from some of those who might be interested in bidding—and the miserable 10 megabits that the UK Government guaranteeing to everybody. It is well outside the 30Mbps that our Government is promising, but it is substantially ahead of what the UK Government is promising. We are likely to have fibre to the premises as part of R100.
Is there a challenge here? I will not know when I will get my fibre until a little man or woman engineer has come and looked at the path to my very door. They will need to walk from the exchange up to my house and check where they can lay the cable. Every premises will need to be inspected before a date can be given. We can do it by area only in the first instance—
I am happy to speak in this debate on digital connectivity, mostly because Stewart Stevenson is in the chamber and it is a joy to listen to him.
I would like to make a couple of points about digital connectivity and to focus on the south-west of Scotland, as a member who represents the South Scotland region. Since becoming an MSP, I have had many constituent calls, emails and queries about broadband. It is a very important issue to everybody in the region, both on a personal level and for our rural businesses. I have hosted sessions in Dumfries, New Galloway and Stranraer, with great support from the digital Scotland superfast broadband team and community broadband Scotland. I also had the pleasure of cutting the ribbon for a new big green box at Springholm, which is bringing better broadband to the village. The technical knowledge and know-how, both nationally and on the ground, and the solutions to the problems have been greatly welcomed. I thank everyone who has helped, including Fiona Muir and her colleagues in the DSSB team, who have worked closely with me on many local issues.
The Scottish Government has taken action to engage with the people of Scotland and has made digital infrastructure investment a priority for Scotland’s businesses and people. Digital access is vital for rural businesses, farm businesses and our general practitioner practices. Yesterday, I met Dr Carey Lunan and Dr Alastair Forbes, who are chair and deputy chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, and we exchanged examples of the necessity of access to good broadband infrastructure to support the work that is required in patient care today. It is crucial for downloading laboratory results, for viewing and sharing key information and, increasingly, for telehealth and telemedicine activities.
Despite the matter being reserved to the UK Government, the SNP is ensuring that Scotland has world-class digital infrastructure. In the south-west of Scotland, I have been working—with Mr Carson—on digital access to support local businesses in the Mossyard exchange area. There is some progress, although it is still quite challenging. I think that he would agree with me on that.
Can the member explain why there has been so little improvement in broadband speeds for those with the poorest speeds? It all very well to increase speeds where people already have superfast broadband. Has the progress for those with the slowest speeds been satisfactory?
The progress that has been made has, at least, been forward moving. There are obviously issues with new technology and such things that we need to explore, but I welcome any progress that has been made. I would support any action that the Scottish Government can take to support access for people in rural areas.
“R100 to prioritise the remote” and
“rural ... communities”.
That is great, and I encourage him and Conservative members to lobby the UK Government so that more financial support for R100 is a commitment that is not only made but delivered by the UK Government. Investment in Scottish broadband, and in improved coverage, has not been a priority for the UK Government so far. Indeed, the cabinet secretary’s motion
“calls on the UK government to increase its funding contribution to R100 from just 3% of the total and ensure that Scotland sees tangible financial, social and environmental benefits from the broadband Universal Service Obligation.”
I agree with the member. The UK Government should give more to the programme. After all, the issue is reserved, as I said in my opening speech. The more important non-partisan point is this: would it not be good if the cabinet secretary could ensure that connection timescales are published when we have a roll-out programme, so that people know where they are?
We could ask the Scottish Government whether that data—if it were accurate—could be available. However, I know that there is flux, with changes to schedules and timetables, which might make providing that information difficult, because people would have problems if the information was inaccurate.
The UK Government can do better, it should do better and it has a responsibility to do better.
On an interesting note, in order to address specific South Scotland digital and broadband issues, the interim board of the new south of Scotland economic partnership has established an infrastructure thematic group, which will review and make recommendations—including on digital infrastructure—build on existing plans and seek opportunities for innovation. A series of interviews and workshops with businesses is currently being planned, which will inform the thematic group, along with the on-going public consultation. I thank Amanda Burgauer from Scottish Rural Action, who is a member of SOSEP, for the update on progress. The partnership will also seek to identify initiatives and prevent any potential duplication of efforts to ensure that moneys are invested for the maximum return. SOSEP is keen to address the uptake of digital infrastructure by residents and businesses in the south of Scotland to maximise the social and economic benefits of being digitally connected.
Connectivity is improving. As an added note, I am keen to mention that I now have a 4G mobile phone signal all the way from Dumfries to Stranraer on the A75. That was not the case this time last year.
I know that there is work to be done, particularly in the south-west. I look forward to hearing whether the UK Government will commit to more R100 funding to support the further faster access to vital communications that the rural south-west, the south and the rest of Scotland deserve.
I, too, would like to look at some facts, figures and timescales. The Scottish Government promised that, by the end of 2017, 95 per cent of Scottish homes and businesses would be able to connect to fibre broadband. Although some politicians claim that that target was achieved, not all is quite as it seems.
The fact is that having a connection to fibre broadband does not automatically give us superfast broadband speeds of 25Mbps or more. In fact, the cabinet secretary stated that to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee on 31 January 2018. I will quote him, which is not something that I always do. He said that the roll-out of fibre broadband does not necessarily enable superfast broadband.
No. I will let the cabinet secretary in in a minute, but I would like to make a little bit more progress.
Here is the real position: according to the figures from thinkbroadband, only 93.66 per cent of homes and businesses in Scotland are connected to fibre broadband with speeds in excess of 24Mbps, so the claim is not quite true. In the Highlands and Islands, the situation is worse, as one in five of our constituents does not have the superfast broadband that is required to watch today’s debate online.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s ambition to increase superfast broadband coverage with its R100 programme. Every politician wants to see 100 per cent of homes and businesses having access to fast broadband. However, I am struggling to work out when the cabinet secretary will deliver on the Government’s promise—his promise. Let us not forget that, when it comes to delivering infrastructure projects, this Government seems to base opening dates on political opportunities rather than realistic construction dates and that, to add further flexibility, it often uses seasons rather than dates to hide delays. Here are three classic examples: the Queensferry crossing; the Aberdeen western peripheral route; and the Dalraddy to Kincaig dualling project. I would therefore like to ask the Scottish Government whether it can deliver superfast broadband on time. It would be helpful if the cabinet secretary could confirm what timeframe he is working to. Every time I question him—[
Ms Martin, if you want to interrupt, I am happy to give way to the cabinet secretary.
I am sorry; I could not hear who was speaking from a sedentary position. It was Mr Stevenson—I might have guessed.
Every time I question the cabinet secretary about when we will all have supervised broadband, I get more confused because I get a different answer. Last year, the programme for government confirmed that 100 per cent access to superfast broadband would be achieved by 2021. When I questioned the cabinet secretary about the issue again in the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, I was told that 100 per cent access to superfast broadband would be achieved by the end of 2021. That is confusing. I am happy to give way to him if he can give me and Parliament a definitive answer. When will we all have superfast broadband?
I have made it clear umpteen times. I have always said the same thing with regard to my commitments, which is that we plan to give everyone access to superfast broadband—that means everyone and every business—by the end of 2021. I think that that is what “by 2021” means; I do not think that there is a difference, frankly. That is the commitment that we have made. I am baffled by the proposition that I have given out a load of different dates, because the date is absolutely clear. What baffles me is that people from rural constituencies, such as Mr Mountain are not totally behind this project—a unique project in the UK, without which the objective of providing access to all rural and island dwellers could not conceivably be achieved within that timescale.
I am sorry, but I am going to take the cabinet secretary to task on this, because I have the wonderful ability to look at digital connectivity in this Parliament and find out that, on 29 November 2017, he retweeted a tweet from the First Minister that said:
“@scotgov is about to invest 100s of millions £ more getting superfast broadband to 100% of premises by end of this parliament - which is a commitment the UK government has not even made”.
I think that the cabinet secretary knows as well as I do that the end of this session of Parliament will be at the end of March 2021. That means that—as set out by the First Minister in a tweet that was republicised by the cabinet secretary—we should have 100 per cent access to superfast broadband by that time.
The question is, who is right? Is it the First Minister or the cabinet secretary? Perhaps there is a more cynical explanation. Is the cabinet secretary trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat by delaying the delivery date, knowing perhaps that he can deliver 100 per cent access before the end of 2021 so that he can claim a victory before an election? If that is the case, I would say that most people in Scotland would prefer the cabinet secretary to be honest.
I believe that the Scottish Government is nowhere near achieving its promise to deliver superfast broadband to all premises by the end of this parliamentary session. It is clear that it is moving the goalposts because it knows that it cannot deliver and it does not want to stand at another election on another broken promise.
Households and businesses across the Highlands and Scotland need to move forward in the digital fast lane. I say frankly to the cabinet secretary that this is not good enough. There is no point in blaming other people—as has been done this afternoon—by saying that it is all somebody else’s fault. I urge the cabinet secretary to move forward, to delay no longer and to deliver superfast broadband to all houses and businesses by the end of March 2021—which the First Minister said that she would do.
The time for excuses is over. The time to deliver is now—please deliver on time.
As an MSP for a constituency that falls largely within the intervention area of the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, I am well aware of the remarkable efforts of that programme, but I also share the frustrations of constituents who are not yet able to benefit from superfast broadband.
Although this area is reserved to Westminster, the decision by the Scottish Government to intervene was necessary to ensure that vast swathes of rural Scotland are not left behind. Without the intervention of the Scottish Government, most of my constituency would have no access to superfast broadband. The impact of 100 per cent access by 2021 will be hugely significant for people in my constituency and our local economy. Three benefits are that remote working will be enabled; there will be access to digital health; and businesses will be able to consider the option of rural premises, rather than the city of Aberdeen, which will be a massive boost to the local economy in my constituency.
Last month, the goal of 95 per cent of Scottish premises with access to superfast broadband was reached. Ofcom noted:
“Superfast broadband availability in Scotland has increased at a faster rate than other UK nations”. which I think is impressive, given the particular geographical challenges of our country. The challenge of delivering fibre broadband in Aberdeenshire is made more difficult because that area has twice the national average of exchange-only lines, which are more expensive to upgrade.
I agree with everything that Gillian Martin has said. We both represent constituents in Aberdeenshire, and she is absolutely correct. Will she respond to my earlier intervention, which I hope was a non-partisan point? Our constituents would like to know approximately when they could be connected, over the next three and a half years. Would that information not be very helpful?
I listened when Mike Rumbles made that point. My parents are the sort of people who are on the phone asking me when superfast broadband will be delivered to Bourtie, and I reckon that they would like to know.
I do not know how feasible and practical it would be, given the various situations that can happen to make the date more difficult to predict.
The national average for exchange-only lines is 22 per cent, but Aberdeenshire's figure is more than 45 per cent, which is around 50,000 homes. The roll-out of infrastructure through the digital Scotland broadband programme has been primarily achieved by running fibre cable from telephone exchanges to roadside cabinets and relying on existing copper wire that runs from the cabinets to premises. However, 45 per cent of lines in Aberdeenshire run directly from exchanges to premises, and that has created a significant challenge. Without the intervention, it has been estimated that only 66 per cent of Scotland would be able to receive fibre broadband, so it is a significant achievement that around 95 per cent of premises in Aberdeenshire currently have access, compared with 25.1 per cent that the area would have if it was left to commercial deployment—that is a staggering achievement for my constituency.
Although the progress made so far is welcome, it is clear that more needs to be done, because it is frustrating for people in the remaining 9.3 per cent. I am grateful that the Scottish Government recognises that and has committed to invest more than £600 million—more than the UK Government has ever invested in broadband—to the programme to reach 100 per cent.
The north of Scotland is being allocated £384 million of that funding, which is nearly two thirds of the total sum of £600 million that is being invested in the R100 programme. However, people who live in some new housing developments do not currently have access to superfast broadband. I understand that the intervention areas were defined at the beginning of the contract in 2012 using postcode data from 2011. That means that new postcodes that were created for properties that were built after that time are not included in the programme’s roll-out.
The Scottish Government updated Scottish planning policy and the national planning framework to allow local authorities to insist on digital connectivity as a requirement of any new development and in order to counteract that situation.
The cabinet secretary has also been trying to secure a commitment that Scotland will benefit from the UK Government’s universal service obligation. I agree with the cabinet secretary that it would be grossly unfair if people from Scotland were excluded from the USO despite contributing funding to it. However, I am grateful to my colleague Emma Harper for highlighting that the UK Government’s programme is only for 10Mbps, which is not by any means as ambitious as the Scottish Government’s aim of providing 30Mbps.
I highlight that there is only 17 per cent geographical coverage of 4G in Scotland, and only 53 per cent coverage of premises. That leaves rural areas at a significant disadvantage. Telecoms policy is reserved to the UK Government but I note that, yet again, the Scottish Government is having to intervene and it has funded a £25 million project to address mobile not-spots across the country. One of the initial 16 not-spot sites earmarked is the fantastic and beautiful village of Collieston in my constituency, and I take this opportunity to lobby for Methlick to be included, too, as it is a town in which no one can get a phone signal of any kind.
I pay tribute to Fergus Ewing for driving forward towards the goal of 100 per cent access. It is not an easy task; it is a very difficult task. It was rather ridiculous that Matt Hancock said that the Scottish Government is too interested in the constitution to roll out broadband. He said—clearly primed by his Scottish Tory colleagues, who were sniggering in the background as he trotted out their programmed mantra—that we are “Too interested in independence.” That mantra has served the Scottish Tories well as a deflection mechanism for any public or media scrutiny of their lack of policies or action. If only Mr Hancock’s focus on addressing rural digital poverty had been anything near that of Mr Ewing, the Scottish Government might not have needed to intervene. I say on behalf of Aberdeenshire East, thank goodness that it has.
There is no doubt that the advances in information and digital technology have never been greater than in my lifetime and present tremendous opportunities for everyone. As a young computing student in the early 1980s at Glasgow College of Technology, I recall having to feed in my computer program via punch cards before it would even run or be processed, which just goes to show the advances that have been made.
I marvel at the fact that people can share photographs from locations all over the world and have instant access to news, music and sport. Tremendous advances have been made, but the reality for far too many people in this country is that they do not have access to that technology or to those advances.
A lot of the speeches in the debate have focused on the digital divide between rural and urban communities, but I will focus on those who, because of the circumstances in which they find themselves, the communities in which they live and their lack of access to money, do not have access to any of that technology at all.
We live in a country where 1 million people are in poverty, 695,000 people are in fuel poverty and more than 200,000 children live in poverty. The idea of access to a lot of the technology that members have spoken about is simply a dream and not the reality for a single parent who lives in Castlemilk or a child growing up in Easterhouse.
I live in Rutherglen and Cambuslang, where there are communities that are among the 5 per cent most deprived areas in the country. For example, a person who lives Burnhill in the Rutherglen area possibly cannot afford access to a smart phone or an internet connection and having a router seems far fetched. Therefore, there are real challenges for the Parliament and the Government to move the debate forward so that we can ensure that there is not only coverage but greater access throughout the country.
Some of the challenges on technology have been compounded by the UK welfare changes. For instance, to have access to universal credit, an individual also needs access to an online account.
A recent survey by Citizens Advice Scotland showed that 18 per cent people of the people citizens advice bureaux had come across did not have any access to the internet. That means that, if one of those people is trying to get access to universal credit, they are perhaps using technology that they have never used in their life and to which they do not have immediate access in the neighbourhood, so they go along to their local library. However, because of challenges in public services recently, information technology services at local libraries have been reduced or the libraries’ opening hours curtailed. There are real challenges there.
One of the other issues is the way that big business drives the digital divide. Many of the contracts that companies such as Sky and BT offer are high-value, long-term contracts. People who work in short-term jobs, perhaps as part of the gig economy, are not able to make such long-term commitments and, therefore, are locked out of those digital contracts. Therefore, financial exclusion can also drive digital exclusion.
There are some excellent local examples of how to combat that. In Cambuslang, the West Whitlawburn Housing Co-operative set up its own communications co-operative, Whitcomm Co-operative Ltd, in 2008. It offers cheaper packages than those offered by Sky and BT, and there has been an 80 per cent uptake in the area. That is an example of good practice that the Government should consider.
On how we move the debate forward, I understand that the Government wants to talk about the progress that it has made on broadband access, but there are fundamental challenges around deprivation and poverty that restrict people’s access to technology. We need to give greater support to local projects such as that in West Whitlawburn and invest properly in IT facilities at libraries. I appeal to the Government to try to use its influence with the businesses that offer longer-term deals that, potentially, lock out people in areas of social exclusion.
In the debate, a lot of speakers have exchanged statistics on megabits and megabytes but, if we want to open up the advantages of technology to everyone in our country, we need a more fundamental and wider debate. That is something in which the whole Parliament should engage.
I congratulate my colleague Stewart Stevenson on his foresight in hosting a digital Scotland briefing session in the Parliament earlier today. Among his many talents, he possesses either psychic powers or an impeccable sense of timing.
As ever, it was extremely useful to get an update on where work in my constituency to improve broadband connections has taken us, and I will share it with the chamber. As of last week, the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme had led to 11,333 premises being connected to fibre broadband, with 9,409 of them, by virtue of proximity, being capable of receiving speeds of more than 24 Mbps.
Commercial delivery has led to 69.7 per cent of Angus being connected to fibre broadband. Without the DSSB, that is all that we would have had. Instead, the commercial and digital Scotland programmes together mean that just under 93 per cent of premises in the county are connected to fibre, with 85.7 per cent of premises able to receive speeds of more than 24Mbps.
However, the impact of the DSSB project in my constituency has been far more pronounced than that, because the commercial programme in Angus South was to have made a minimal contribution. In my constituency, we are where we are largely because of DSSB deployment and the impact of gainshare. That said, there remains considerable work left to be done, but I know that the Scottish Government is committed to delivery, and I will continue, on behalf of my constituents, to make sure that it happens.
As MSPs, all of us have a duty to raise awareness of the issue of people not understanding the need to get a package. For example, only 37.35 per cent of premises in Angus have ordered a fibre service from a digital Scotland structure although they could benefit from doing so. There is a myriad of reasons for that uptake level. For some people, the broadband speed that they already have is enough for their needs, but there is a lack of awareness out there. We need to help people to better understand that the fact that the infrastructure is in place does not mean that they will automatically be linked into it. Broadband issues are a significant contributor to my surgery case load, and that will be the case for many colleagues. I understand entirely why constituents are so keen to have a reliable, efficient connection.
We should be clear about the fact that, when it comes to the upgrade work that is taking place across Scotland, we are talking about a reserved area—there are no ifs, no buts and no maybes. However much political rivals want to muddy the waters, that is a fact. Therefore, it is to the credit of Fergus Ewing and the Scottish Government that they have stepped up to the plate by committing 97 per cent of the funding for the R100 programme and setting the bar far higher than the UK Government’s 10Mbps broadband universal service obligation.
Nevertheless, I hope that the R100 tendering process results in the ending of the Openreach monopoly. It is good that other companies are coming forward to bid for the various lots. I think that we would benefit from having new kids on the block, as it were, because a trawl through my constituency case files would show Openreach failing, time and again, to meet the reasonable expectations of the people I represent, and I suspect that similar exercises in other constituency offices would show the same thing. In the future, all those who have a part to play must work together to avoid duplication and ensure that resources go where they need to be utilised.
That is why, last year, I brought together representatives from digital Scotland, the R100 programme and Angus Council in my constituency. The contracts that deliver the R100 programme must not only allow for innovation and flexibility but must encourage it so that the successful bidders can, for example, tie in with local authorities where those councils are taking a lead.
In April, an initiative that is being led by Angus Council went live at Kirkton industrial estate in Arbroath, as well as at the Orchardbank business park in Forfar, and radio broadband is now available to businesses in both of those locations. In addition, the council will be able to provide a business-grade broadband connection to business premises outwith those sites where they have line-of-sight links to those key locations.
Furthermore, Angus Council has submitted an expression of interest to the WiFi4EU programme. If successful, it will receive €15,000 to support the provision of wi-fi in the county’s town centres. The council is also working—belatedly—to deliver wi-fi in four primary schools in my constituency, the current lack of which is the cause of some concern for parents and pupils.
In addition, the councils that are involved in the wider Tay cities deal are developing a proposal that would involve the procurement of a suitable supplier to deliver full-fibre upgrades to identified public sector buildings. That infrastructure could be used to deliver scalable bandwidth to the public sector while reducing the cost of subsequent deployment of full-fibre networks to homes and businesses. We should give credit to Angus Council and the lead officer, Kirsty Macari, for all of that. It is imperative that the councils are regarded as partners in the national R100 programme, because we need commonsense collaboration.
It should be noted that, in advance of R100, progress is still being made in rural parts of my constituency. Over the past few months, the locations that have benefited have included Piperdam, Tealing, Inverarity and Colliston. On top of that, there are individuals who are set to benefit from the provision of fibre direct to their property. The information that was provided earlier this week, which the cabinet secretary reiterated today, will be warmly welcomed by my constituents in Glenisla, Glen Clova and Glen Prosen. Those areas are among those that have been mandated and weighted within the R100 intervention area to incentivise the delivery of fibre infrastructure to some of our more challenging areas.
Good progress has been made and progress continues to be made, but more needs to be done. We must give credit to the Scottish Government for stepping into the breach and ensuring that we reach the stage at which all our citizens can enjoy access to fast, reliable broadband.
I remind members that I remain an Aberdeen City Council councillor. Aberdeen city recognises, of course, that fast broadband is vital to its future development. That makes it even more important that everybody else has it, too. I therefore commend the decision to push for 100 per cent superfast connections, and
I would be very interested to see a breakdown of how the Government plans to spend the £600 million that it has committed to that in its budget.
I will use my time in the debate to discuss the link between digital connections and an issue that is relevant to the developed world and that seems to affect Scotland in particular—I am, of course, talking about our low productivity growth. According to the Scottish Fiscal Commission, Scotland’s productivity growth stood as low as 0.2 per cent last year, and it is scheduled to be just 0.5 per cent this year. The commission believes that Scotland might have reached its maximum economic output, as is evidenced by its low unemployment rate. That means that we cannot experience strong growth until we pursue expansionary supply-side policies.
If we want to grow the economy, productivity is the place to start. In our history, the largest spikes in productivity growth have come about as a result of the discovery and use of new technology. From smoke rings to modern-day tweeting, our mediums of communication have improved vastly. We heard a great history from Mr Stevenson.
Going forward, technology can bring benefits through the efficient automation of mundane tasks and the simplifying of processes. The 21st century has largely been defined by our delve into the digital world, and the benefits to productivity have been plenty. They range from time and cost savings to transformative practices that have often set new standards. Uber brought about the mass move to simple transport apps, Just Eat enhanced the fast-food industry and QuickBooks simplified small business accounts. Even good old Microsoft has standard programs most of which nobody can understand. New algorithms are developed every day. I look forward to the day when most aspects of our routines are transformed and enhanced to leave more time for creativity, entrepreneurship and leisure.
To get to that point, we need to invest in technology infrastructure. It therefore strikes me as odd that the Scottish Government began phase 2 of the broadband procurement only recently, given that it received funding from the UK Government four years ago. I acknowledge that the new target of 100 per cent superfast broadband exceeds other targets in speed, so I understand why Fergus Ewing gave himself an extra year to complete the roll-out.
The reason why the R100 programme is proceeding now and did not proceed earlier is that it was simply not possible to proceed with it earlier because it would have been impossible to design the specification until the DSSB programme was completed. Had we done so, the only potential bidder for any of the three segments would have been BT, because only BT would have known what the specification would have been. For that technical but very important reason, which the industry accepts, it would not have been possible to have had a different timetable for the R100 procurement.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that additional information. What matters is that we are now on line to getting it done.
Rural access is one area in which roll-out has failed so far. I know that that has been mentioned in the committee and quite often in the chamber. Some rural constituencies in Scotland have the lowest access of any in the UK, which prevents businesses from engaging with the rest of Scotland and the wider market. Indeed, in parts of Aberdeenshire we have some of the worst connection levels in the United Kingdom, which puts a ceiling on the north-east’s increase in productivity. I therefore welcomed Matt Hancock’s local full fibre networks challenge fund, which allows areas in the north-east and across Scotland to enjoy a share of £200 million to stimulate commercial investment in full-fibre networks.
Rural connections are also heavily influenced by mobile coverage. Although the level of 4G coverage has risen well recently, it still lags behind UK levels, with BT saying that mobile networks need better access to public assets at affordable rates. I welcome the Government’s plans to roll out 5G with a rural-first approach.
Providing access is only half the battle, however. BT has said that, although access is nearing 100 per cent, take-up is only a third of that. There can be many reasons why people do not use the available access. Some may have fears over cybersafety, while some elderly people may not associate their life success with the internet, so why would they change their minds now? Mr Kelly outlined problems for disadvantaged families. Perhaps some technology needs to be made simpler to deal with that issue. It is wrong to assume that, because someone has the ability to use social media, that translates into an ability to run the digital side of a business. It is our responsibility, in the Parliament, to do what we can to alleviate those concerns.
We can have all the access in the world but, unless people use it, it will not make a difference. That is why we need to encourage take-up and why the creation of barriers to take-up is not acceptable. The current system counts access as people having an exchange box near their house, but that does not take into account the limited spaces in the box for exchange-to-house connections. Similarly, even with a superfast exchange, if the cable to a house is made of copper, the connection will not be nearly fast enough. In both of those circumstances, the Scottish Government ticks the box of having provided access and moves on, leaving many people without the benefits.
I have highlighted the importance of digital connections in making a real change to a worrying trend in Scotland. Productivity growth will come about only through a carefully planned campaign of increasing access and take-up. I hope that the desire to tick boxes and to get one up on the UK Government will not get in the way of that because, in the end, it would only be holding Scotland back. Take-up is what we require.
Broadband connectivity has certainly dominated my case load since I was elected, and I imagine that the same is true for any member who represents a rural or remote part of Scotland. Although the technicalities of connectivity can make for dull reading, the issue is all about what broadband can unlock. In rural and remote Scotland, infrastructure has historically made the difference between communities thriving and communities splintering and people moving elsewhere, and it continues to do so. Infrastructure has always played that role. In the past, that has involved roads, electricity and telephone lines, and now it involves broadband.
We cannot overstate how vital broadband is to ensuring not only that the Highlands and Islands economy stays strong but that people who have been brought up there choose to stay. In relation to all those forms of infrastructure—whether it is the roads 50 years ago, electricity, telephone lines or broadband today—how much attention Governments pay to ensuring that, where the market will fail, they stump up the cash and do not leave it to the market is a test of their concern for those on the periphery in remote and rural Scotland.
It is estimated that, if broadband had been left to the market in the Highlands and Islands, only 25.3 per cent of premises would be connected to fibre broadband through commercial deployment. However, with Government intervention and investment—I pay tribute to the money from the UK Government as well as the money from the Scottish Government—87.7 per cent of the Highlands area is connected. Nevertheless, the figure is not yet 100 per cent. I hear the frustrations of businesses, young people and families who want access to superfast broadband, and nothing short of 100 per cent will satisfy them.
I return to the point about testing Governments’ resolve and their attention to remote and rural parts of Scotland. That is why the Scottish Government’s target of 100 per cent is vital to the Highlands and Islands.
The R100 procurement policy makes it clear that it aims to find suppliers who will connect as many premises as possible for the available subsidy, but it is still unclear whether the investment of £600 million will ensure that the 100 per cent target is met. Does Kate Forbes not welcome the fact that, by 2020, everyone will be guaranteed a minimum broadband speed of 10Mbps?
I clearly welcome any commitment from any Government or member to connect remote places in the Highlands and Islands by using different technologies. However, we need to look to the future. This is what I do not understand about the universal service obligation. Yes, it is welcome that the UK Government wants to connect all premises at a speed of 10Mbps, but that is not the future. We need to be ambitious when it comes to broadband, and the Scottish Government’s commitment to 30Mbps is far more ambitious and shows far more concern for broadband’s potential to unlock opportunities in the Highlands and Islands than a measly target of 10Mbps.
I return to the need to reach 100 per cent coverage. We are talking about the equivalent of electricity or the roads infrastructure. Across Scotland, there are single-track roads that cannot cope with the current volume of traffic because they were not built as single carriageways. With the greatest public investment in broadband that has ever been made on these islands—£600 million—we have an opportunity not just to meet the demand that exists today but to look five or 10 years down the line and put the infrastructure in place to unlock its potential.
Nobody is unaffected by a lack of access to superfast broadband, including children who have homework to do, people who are working or keeping in touch and businesses, in particular. I will focus on businesses as I close. Small and medium-sized businesses constitute 98 per cent of all enterprises in Scotland—they are the backbone of the economy. In this Parliament, we often hear the accusation that there is a lack of growth in Scotland. Growth is key, but we will drive growth by allowing those small and medium-sized enterprises to access markets and audiences across the world, which can be done on the most remote peninsula in Scotland with access to superfast broadband.
We can see the current need for such access in tourism. The world is coming to Scotland—actually, people are coming to the Highlands, via Edinburgh and maybe Dumfries and Galloway—to see the beauty of this country, and most bookings are made online. Last year, a constituent who has a bed-and-breakfast establishment came to me and said that he had had no bookings for the peak summer season because he had no access to broadband.
We have been considering difficulties in accessing broadband, and mobile connectivity is part of that. Again, we see the Scottish Government, through its 4G infill programme, doing something about that, and I am delighted that the first 60 not-spots have already been identified.
It is all about ambition: 30Mbps rather than a measly 10Mbps, and £600 million rather than a measly 3 per cent of investment. For that, we thank the Scottish Government.
I open by declaring a registrable interest as a partner in a farming business.
From many of the speeches today, it is clear that the Government, although we support its aims in this area, has been too slow to deliver fast and reliable broadband to Scotland. I will highlight the Ofcom figures for my region, as many of my colleagues have done for their regions. The figures are not encouraging: 26,000 Aberdeenshire properties still have broadband speeds below 30Mbps; 15,500 properties do not have 10Mbps; and 4,776 have an abysmal 2Mbps or less. That makes Aberdeenshire one of the least-connected local authorities in the UK; its lack of coverage is considerably worse than the Scotland-wide figure of 9 per cent.
Broadband speed of 2Mbps is absolutely unacceptable, especially at the end of the DSSB programme, which was funded largely by the UK Government.
We cannot accept the statement in the Government’s motion that the gap
“between Scotland and the rest of the UK has been bridged”, because we are still behind—and that is a fact.
I urge the cabinet secretary, rather than boasting of Scotland’s remarkable progress, to apologise to Aberdeenshire constituents for sitting on £21 million in funding, which was handed to it in 2014 by the Westminster Government and is still not spent. That could have given many more homes access to decent broadband, but it still sits unspent.
I take a keen interest in today’s debate and the improvement of Scotland’s digital connectivity, because I cannot access broadband in my rural Strichen home. Despite the nearest cabinet being enabled for superfast broadband, I live too far away to benefit from it. I can achieve something less than 1Mbps down the phone line. I wonder whether I am counted in the 95 per cent, because in theory I am connected. However, if someone has three miles of copper wire between them and the cabinet, it is absolutely no use to them.
I understand the frustration of many rural folks who feel let down by this Government promising access to everyone but failing to deliver. Nearly 20 per cent of my constituency cases since my election in 2016 have related to having either poor broadband speeds or no access at all. That statistic shows that it is a major issue for those living in rural areas. It is nigh on impossible for those trying to run a business in the countryside to do so with poor connectivity.
I was recently contacted by Jane Craigie of Jane Craigie Marketing. She gave a fantastic speech at the NFU Scotland annual general meeting, highlighting the opportunities for rural and farm businesses to develop and grow through better communications. However, her business is being hampered by a lack of broadband. Ms Craigie stated:
“I am passionate about the Scottish Government’s aim to develop rural business and am practising this through my own company. The greatest impediment by far to the further development of my business and therefore my recruitment plans is the extremely poor state of broadband connectivity in my area of Aberdeenshire which, quite frankly, is not fit for domestic, let alone business purposes. This is completely unacceptable in this web-centric era.”
Those are not my words; they are Jane Craigie’s words.
It is precisely because we want Ms Craigie, and indeed everyone else in Aberdeenshire and the rest of Scotland, to have access to superfast broadband at 30Mbps that we have made our commitment. We are investing £600 million precisely to ensure that Ms Craigie and everybody else gets the access that they need. Surely that should be something that we all welcome.
I accept that, but why did the Scottish Government cut the funding this year? There was a huge cut in the budget this year, so 2018 has proven to be a wasted year.
Jane Craigie summed up the problems faced by many. She employs two people and would love to employ another two, but the lack of connectivity means that that is virtually impossible. How can a business manage staff without adequate access to online tax forms, payroll systems and internet banking? How can people grow a business if they are unable to communicate with their customers by email or through a website?
The Scottish Government makes much of the achievements of the DSSB programme and, to be fair, we have moved forward. The cabinet secretary tells us that he has spent £400 million reaching 95 per cent of the population, but he never tells us—unless specifically asked in the chamber, as he was today—that of the £403 million spent, the UK Government put in £101 million, local authorities contributed £91 million, BT put in £126 million, HIE and the EU put in £23 million and the Scottish Government put in only £63 million. The truth is that, far from putting in the lion’s share of the funding, the Scottish Government contributed only 15 per cent of the total. Far from being short-changed, as the cabinet secretary would argue, Scotland has already received nearly two and a half times the level of funding, per head of population, that England has. That is a hard fact, which the SNP does not like to hear.
Are we going to get the same smoke and mirror figures from this Government on R100 funding? We are 10 months on from the announcement of R100 in July 2017, but we still have no further information on successful procurement, on contracts being signed or on the roll-out process.
We also know that the completion date has slipped from delivery by 2021 to delivery by the end of 2021. Those are not the same thing. We need more clarity on R100, how it will be funded and whether it will deliver. In Scotland, we deserve better.
The wonderful astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan once said:
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
It is a lovely quotation from a man who was as much a visionary as an astronomer, and it has relevance to the debate today. Technology and raw computing power are increasing at such a rate that they are making things that were previously thought to be impossible routine in today’s world. The challenge for us is not just to try our best to keep up but to try and put in place systems that allow society to exploit the power of technology for the greater good of us all.
The computers that took us to the moon in 1969 were only about twice as powerful as a Nintendo games console and our current modern smartphones are way more powerful than the supercomputers of earlier decades. Experts tell us that there has been a trillion-fold increase in computing performance over the past 50 years. If a Nintendo games machine can get us to the moon and back, who knows what lies ahead as computing power accelerates onwards and upwards.
Although our debate focuses on infrastructure, coverage and data speeds, we should never take our eyes off the prize that all of this delivers—the emergence of new ideas and possibilities that we could only dream of before, made possible by the technology that we are creating. We are on a journey, and today’s debate gives us a chance to glimpse a little bit of that future. I acknowledge James Kelly’s point about closing the poverty gap, not just the digital divide, if we are to succeed in that regard.
Are we doing everything that we can and are we doing it quickly enough? Inevitably, that is what much of the debate has been focused on so far. The key differences in what the Scottish Government is doing for Scotland compared with what is happening anywhere else in the UK are that we are providing total, 100 per cent coverage to all our homes and business over the next three years and we are providing a much higher data speed of 30Mbps for everyone in Scotland, compared with the 10Mbps speed that is the standard for rural Britain. In my view, that UK standard is wrong. If we can do more and we can do it sooner, we should, because other nations are and the risk is that we will get left behind.
Take a look at Estonia, for example. Not so long ago, it was a fairly unknown corner of the Soviet Union. It is now a confident, technology-driven nation intending to deliver full coverage at 30Mbps a year earlier even than us, and it is promoting take-up of ultrafast 100Mbps data services, which are expected to account for 60 per cent of all its internet subscriptions by 2020. Is it really a surprise, then, that small Estonia leads the way in many aspects of digital business and computing services?
Another example is Singapore. Around 50 years ago, it had a similar income per capita to that of Ghana, but now, thanks to the digital revolution, it is on a par with the USA. The R100 programme investment of £600 million by the Scottish Government to get us our blanket coverage and that high data rate over the next few years is crucial if we are serious about exploiting the opportunities that the digital revolution offers. We would be getting a far higher share of our programme funding from our UK colleagues if the split was comparable to the existing funding arrangements for DSSB.
We also need the communications networks to be the best that they can be to give all our citizens, no matter where they are, the chance to get in on the digital act. There is no point in having fantastic computing power if people cannot share data fast enough through the communications networks. It is a bit like having a Ferrari but only having a dirt-track farm road to drive it on.
Of course, the R100 is not the only development taking place in Scotland. I am pleased to see that our Government is also investing in fixed wireless, 4G mobile and superfast satellite. It is also taking a look at TV white space technology—that is, the unused TV channels between the VHF and UHF parts of the spectrum—to see how best to exploit and deploy those technologies for Scotland. Our digital eggs are thus not all in the one virtual digital basket.
One area that we have not touched on that I would like to highlight is the implications for Scotland of the European Union digital single market. We have yet to hear from those who want Scotland out of Europe and out of the single market whether we should also walk away from the digital single market, which is worth €400 billion per year in data services—not to mention the hundreds of thousands of jobs that it supports.
The European aim is for 100Mbps across all of Europe by 2025 for every household, and common access to all data and content—an end to what we know as geo-blocking—with equal access to online services no matter where one is in Europe. We cannot have all that unless we stay in the digital single market. It is ridiculous for the UK to think it can walk out of the single market but stay in the digital version of the same thing.
The relentless pace of change in technology and computing power is there for us to embrace. If we can, we must, and if we can do more, we should. Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known and discovered. Let us do all that we can to make that happen in Scotland by supporting the Scottish Government’s digital investment programme.
I appreciate you letting me back in, Presiding Officer.
In the heat and emotion of debate, I failed to refer members to my registrable interest as a director of an IT company. I would like to do so now.
On that note, I should probably declare that I am a member of the British Computing Society.
I was interested in the debate this afternoon. Mr Carson has just mentioned passion. I am disappointed at the he-said, she-said rhetoric and who said what in which tweet. I do not think that that will be of interest to our constituents.
I remind Conservative colleagues that it was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Twitter account that put out a branded-up union-flagged “Design is Great Britain” tweet on top of a photograph of the Queensferry crossing—£2.3 billion investment from this Government—that the UK Government had not paid a penny towards. If Conservative members do not mind, I will take their indignation about claiming credit for things with just a little pinch of salt.
I thank Willie Coffey and Mr Kelly for thoughtful speeches and a history of where we are. It reminds me that, in my days of first studying computing, we had punch-card entries for our programming at what was then Glasgow College of Technology and is now Glasgow Caledonian University. That demonstrates how far we have come in this area.
Mr Kelly and Willie Coffey also talked about the digital poverty gap. That concerns me greatly, especially given some of the evidence that we have been hearing on the Social Security Committee on the roll-out of universal credit and the reliance on access to a computer and to the internet to be able to work with that system. I will probably write to Esther McVey with a transcript of all the concerns that have been raised by Conservative colleagues today, to highlight their recognition that people in the Highlands and rural areas have those problems. That might be contributing to the sanctions that people in those areas are suffering under the Conservative Government.
I want to talk a little about women in the digital economy and how transformational what we have been talking about could be for women. In 2017, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published its paper, “Going Digital: The Future of Work for Women”, in which it highlighted how the digital economy is changing in many areas.
The OECD pointed out that digital transformation can strengthen the position of women in the labour market, because more flexible ways of working will present opportunities to combine paid work with caring work, and because less-skilled jobs in the labour market are likely to be replaced. The OECD said:
“Flexibility and choice ... can be beneficial to women and, in particular, may boost their employment rates.”
Indeed, there is evidence from the United States that where flexible working is available, the gender pay gap is narrower.
Digital transformation is creating jobs in all sorts of new areas. We talked a little about that in the debate. For example, women have greater representation on Etsy, very many women are taking the opportunities that are afforded by Airbnb, and Uber has a larger proportion of women drivers than traditional taxi firms have, which is to do with the flexibility that is offered. The digital economy is changing our behaviour and it is changing the labour market for women.
Although the gender gap in general IT skills and the use of software at work tends to be small in most countries, women are still greatly underrepresented in the very skilled IT jobs. For all the reasons that we have talked about, and to encourage entrepreneurialism, we must ensure that women have access to the digital economy and the best ways of working.
In the previous parliamentary session, when I was a regional MSP, I was a member of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee. The committee took evidence from Ofcom’s then chief executive, Sharon White. I raised with her that although people might think that there are no problems with meeting targets in an urban area such as mine, it is the low-hanging fruit that is picked first, so we still have gaps and issues.
Thanks to the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher Tory years, the biggest brownfield site in Europe is in my constituency—the Ravenscraig site. Although we will get some great new road infrastructure as a result of the Glasgow city region deal, the new houses that are being built there, and the centre of excellence for building, the BRE Scotland innovation park, have really poor broadband. Given that the issue is a national priority for the Scottish Government, I wonder whether something can be done about that issue in my constituency. I would welcome further talks with the minister about possibilities in that regard.
The Government has done much to improve and increase digital capability in Scotland. Every home and business will have access to superfast broadband by 2021 as a result of the Government’s £600 million investment. We can make Scotland a digital beacon, and we can improve the digital economy for all Scotland and especially for women. We should seize the opportunities that that presents.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will not take six minutes; I will be brief.
This has been a good debate, although at times it has been a little partisan. One of the best speeches of the afternoon was made by Kate Forbes, who was very positive and gave credit to both the UK Government and the Scottish Government for doing what they can to improve the situation—[
.] I heard someone say from a sedentary position, “That’s the kiss of death,” so I apologise to Kate.
In all seriousness, we could do with a lot more speeches like that. There are things that genuinely divide us and there are things that unite us, and digital connectivity is one of the most important issues that we must get right for the future development of the economy in Scotland.
I make one plea, and I hope that this is a non-partisan point. I recognise that the cabinet secretary said that he would do what he could to inform people about the roll-out, but it would be helpful if the information was in the contracts that go out. We are talking about the next three and a half years, and people—our constituents—will need and want to know.
I defy any member to say that they have not had complaints about constituents not knowing when they are going to have access to superfast broadband. Putting information into the contracts is the single biggest thing that the cabinet secretary could do. As I said, I make that point genuinely and in a non-partisan way. Our constituents would really benefit if, in the contract process with the companies who will deliver the service, the cabinet secretary were able to do that. I do not mean that the suppliers need to tell every set of premises—every house or business—when it will be connected, but that they could just let each area know, so that they would have some idea of how they can cope over the next three and a half years.
The debate has been a good one and the subject is one that we can move forward. Of course, I would like all members to support the amendment in my name; I am always an optimist. I can be critical of the Scottish Government—I have been in the debate—but the Liberal Democrats will support the Government’s motion because, as it is drafted, there is nothing in it to which we could sincerely object. However, I think that it could have been improved on.
At times, the debate has been totally unedifying, which will have done nothing for people who are desperate to get broadband and who have been sitting watching the debate—probably with their heads in their hands. I was therefore very pleased that my colleague Colin Smyth managed to pull the debate back on to the subject, at which point the speeches improved, in terms of looking very practically at what we need to do. This is not a debate for constitutional or inter-Government wrangling. We really need to build a partnership that includes both our Governments, local authorities and providers, so that we can work together to maximise roll-out of broadband, which is so important to our communities.
It is right to say that the gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK has been narrowed, but it still exists, so we need to work on that. There is also still a gap between urban and rural Scotland. The digital Scotland superfast broadband target was for coverage of 95 per cent of the country, but rural Scotland’s figure is much lower than that. Sometimes, looking at the numbers over a broad base hides some of the places that are really losing out.
I want to flag up a contradiction that I heard from the cabinet secretary. In his speech, he stated that R100 will not reach everybody: some will be left behind and therefore there will be a need for something like a voucher scheme for those who cannot be reached. However, I am a bit puzzled as to what a voucher might buy somebody who has no connectivity.
I had also understood that satellite broadband had never been part of R100. However, further on in his speech, the cabinet secretary said that 100 per cent of premises will have connectivity of 30Mbps plus, so I am a bit confused. In his summing-up, perhaps he will clarify what the position is and where people will be.
Perhaps a better way to do this would be to encourage all the contractors for the three areas—
Rhoda Grant has raised the very important point that the issue is not about just technical access; it is also about affordable access. At the moment, one of the dangers appears to be that, for some rural areas, there are very few suppliers that will actually take on customers. For example, my exchange has only three, but there are 300 in Edinburgh. That has not been part of the debate up until now, but I wonder whether it should be in the future. Furthermore, it should probably be a UK debate and not just a Scottish one.
I add that some areas have no choice at all: there are no suppliers. Therefore we need to make sure that if there is to be a voucher system, there will be somewhere to use to it.
As I was saying, it would surely be better to ask the contractors to work with the community companies—the social enterprises—that are already in place. That would underpin them and help them to roll out further into their communities. If R100 were to become a partnership among all providers, such that the big companies were forced to work with the smaller ones, that would be a huge benefit.
For example, as members might know, SSE and the Ministry of Defence are laying additional fibre to Applecross on the west coast, and an additional cable is being laid to provide broadband to the community. That will be sold off to a large provider, which will supply superfast broadband to a small number of homes in that community. That will take those homes out of the community broadband system, which will totally undermine it, meaning that it will fall because it will be unable to continue with that number of houses being taken out. A small number of rural houses will get superfast broadband, but a large number will end up losing their broadband. That existing broadband is sometimes inadequate, but at least it exists. However, it will stop and those houses will not get anything at all. We need to prevent that from happening.
We need to get communities on board. We need to treat them with respect, put them on an equal footing with the large companies and, as part of the contracts, force the big companies to work with communities and give them access to backhaul as well, at a reasonable cost, because communities cannot compete with the larger companies.
Access, which Colin Smyth and James Kelly talked about, is important not just in rural areas. It is also important in deprived communities in urban areas, where it can be unaffordable. It is interesting to match up roll-out of broadband with areas that have traditionally been disadvantaged or deprived. On the broadband map, there are areas missing even in the big cities—Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Inverness. The big providers have not enabled broadband in some areas because they know that people in those areas cannot afford to buy it. They are being left behind, but they are also the biggest service users. They are losing out because they are unable to access, for example, services related to benefits and local government. Arguably, the people who most need access to broadband are getting least access.
It is also interesting to note the difference in take-up between urban and rural areas. When broadband is put into a deprived rural area, take-up can be phenomenal and much higher than would be expected in a deprived urban area. When it is put into a deprived urban area, there can be not much take-up at all. That is to do with the cost. In a rural area, it saves people a fortune to have broadband because they can shop and do a number of other things without having to use the car and travel, whereas in an urban area it represents a cost rather than a saving.
We need to look at all those things. Broadband allows access to services and the like, which is really important in rural areas. For example, e-health services save people from having to travel. One of the biggest complaints that I get from my constituents is that they have to travel miles and miles from home, sometimes with overnight stays, just for a healthcare appointment. Such things can be done by videoconference or the like, if that facility is in place. The technology exists, so such things can happen, but people need to be able to use it.
The same applies to e-care, benefits and other public services including common agricultural policy applications and even education, with e-sgoil being used beyond the Western Isles to get education out into smaller schools to make their curriculum more varied.
A point that has not yet been made in the debate is that the public purse has paid for fibre over and over again. If it was a road, we would be laying motorways on top of motorways. We need to own the fibre to make sure that anybody else who rolls out a public contract using fibre uses what we have already paid for, rather than laying more. What is worse, they own what they lay, although it is paid for from the public purse.
The same goes for mobile connectivity and emergency services coverage. Again, that must be made available to others so that the cost to the consumer is kept down. The gain to the public purse must be maintained, and the coverage must be kept in public ownership. We really need to look at that.
Presiding Officer, I am not sure how much time I have left. [
Okay. Thank you.
I note that digital connectivity is not just there for its own purposes but has a huge economic impact.
This is an important debate in which speeches should not have been about a constitutional wrangle. We must all work together to ensure that people have digital access, because our constituents require it. If we get our heads together, we will be able to go much further than if we are fighting among ourselves.
I point members to my entry in the register of members’ interests in which I include a voluntary entry on my ownership of web domains.
I start perhaps with a point of unusual consensus and a shift in the tone of the debate. I welcome the Scottish Government’s connectivity ambitions. Equally, I welcome the UK Government’s ambitions. Reflecting on Kate Forbes’s points, I welcome any ambitions to improve the connectivity in Scotland and the wider world, whether they come from the state, the public sector, the private sector or civil society. I wonder whether, during this afternoon’s tit for tat, we have perhaps missed a trick. We are coming to the end of a two-and-a-bit-hour debate, and there are still a few issues with the Government’s reaching 100 per cent ambition that I am no further forward in understanding. I will touch on some of those issues in the hope that we can have a sensible and informed last few minutes of debate.
For example, from the comments that have been made, it is still quite unclear what economic model will be used to reach some of the hardest-to-reach parts of our isles. I sit on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. When we looked at the issue, there was wide general understanding that reaching Scotland’s remote rural areas and island communities will be difficult and expensive and will require quite an open mind on how we do it. Therefore, what is the financial model that is required to reach those areas? What technological mixes do we need? We cannot always use fibre to reach some of those communities, businesses and households. Someone in a croft in a very remote part of Scotland might rely on a very different technology from somebody in North Ayrshire, who might seem close to a suburban area but is still too far from the cabinet to get superfast broadband, as is currently the case for many people.
We have not really had a discussion about how value for money will be at the centre of the entire process—by that, I mean the contract and tender process, and how the quite substantial sum of public money will be spent. Very little detail on that has come out of today’s debate. How will the contracts be tendered? How will they be administered? How will we ensure that there is plurality of opportunity for not just the big well-known providers but a wide range of providers, including smaller local tech suppliers? When and how will the three lots—as described by the cabinet secretary—translate into timescales for delivery? There is still a lack of detail on that.
More importantly, once people are connected to superfast broadband—and we hope that they will be—what are we doing to address the real issues around digital skills, affordability, take-up rates and public awareness of the digital divide that we agree exists? Thereafter, what are the plans for ultrafast and full fibre? How will new and emerging technologies replace speeds of 10Mbps—or even 30Mbps—with 300Mbps or 1000Mbps.
I agree that we need to help people to become digitally aware and enabled. Does the member agree that an important role exists for public spaces—libraries perhaps being paramount among them—where people can get the education and early introduction to accessing the internet and other services? Councils should be very wary of reducing the number of public spaces, because that would touch on this policy area, as well as many others.
I am happy to align myself with Stewart Stevenson’s comments. I frequently hold surgeries in libraries, which are good locations to hold them. Every library that I have been to has had a space where people go to access computers and high-speed internet. There is free public wi-fi in many such spaces. They make a real difference in allowing people to do activities such as creating CVs, applying for jobs, connecting with businesses and paying bills. The spaces provide people with opportunities that they might not have at home, and I will touch on that later.
In the ping-pong of today’s debate, we might have missed an opportunity to demonstrate that, as a Parliament, we are willing to work together to progress the agenda of how Scotland can be a leading digital nation.
The “Digital Disruption and Small Business in Scotland” report by the Federation of Small Businesses said that, although there is a growing recognition of the need for businesses to transform digitally, there is
“a gap between the current use of digital technology by Scottish firms and the pace of change” and that
“The majority of businesses in Scotland remain unprepared for the coming digital onslaught.”
I say yes to digital connectivity and also yes to digital ambition.
Valid questions have been asked today around issues such as why the procurement process for phase 2 took so long and why suppliers will not be signed up until 2019, as we learned today. There are also valid questions to be asked about how the £600 million that was promised by the cabinet secretary for phase 2 will be introduced into the Scottish budget, given that it was notably absent from this year’s budget. Further questions can be asked around the total cost of what it will take to deliver broadband access to 100 per cent of premises and how much of that cost will be met through a mix of state intervention, recouped revenue from commercial take-up as people access commercial services and investment directly from the commercial sector, which we have not heard much about..
Among some of the faux outrage this afternoon, some valid points were raised. Edward Mountain was right to question the timescales for the Government’s ambitions and any ambiguity that exists in that regard. James Kelly was right to talk about the fact that, although we see telecommunications almost as a utility these days, they are one that many cannot afford. Willie Coffey was right to talk about the importance of participating in a worldwide digital market. All those are important points. However, what struck me as notable was the lack of detail from the front benches in today’s debate.
Before taking on the role of spokesman for transport and infrastructure, I was my party’s digital economy spokesman. One of the most challenging aspects of that was being a shadow spokesman without anyone in particular to shadow. What I mean by that is that, when one tries to dig beneath the surface to find out who is leading on Scotland’s digital future, there is a confused picture of governance. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution is responsible for overall digital strategy; the Deputy First Minister is responsible for cybersecurity and skills; the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, who is here today, is responsible for improving connectivity, which is no easy task; the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs is apparently in charge of digital participation; and the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work is in charge of promoting Scotland’s digital businesses. I mean no disrespect to the cabinet secretary who is representing the Government here today, but there is clearly an issue with digital leadership, responsibility and accountability at the heart of the Scottish Government.
In focusing solely on connectivity, the discussion is not focusing on what we do with that connectivity. What are we doing as a Parliament to ensure that society is equipped with the skills that it needs to take advantage of this newfound connectivity when it arrives? What are we doing to ensure that every fibre—pardon the pun—of Government’s being is focused on supporting the digital potential of every business in Scotland? Nowhere in today’s debate did I get a glimpse of the Government’s strategy on how it plans to plug the gap caused by the inadequate levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers in our schools, and nor did I hear about what it can or should do about affordability, which is an important issue because, for many households, the cost of connectivity is simply too high. Further, I heard nothing about how connectivity will be used to help us access public services.
Like everyone, I want 100 per cent of Scotland to be connected to superfast or ultrafast broadband speeds, with full 5G connectivity all over. I want investors to come to Scotland, see it as an international hub of connectivity and bring their businesses here, and I want them to be met by a skilled workforce that is waiting for them, ready to help them expand, and a Government that has a clear strategy and vision to help them grow their businesses. However, today’s debate simply reinforces the view that I have long held, which is that, if we focus solely on how much, how fast and when, we are collectively failing our constituents in their attempts to make Scotland the digital country that it could and should be.
I will endeavour so to do, Presiding Officer. I have enjoyed most of today’s debate, which has included excellent speeches from across the parties, as Mike Rumbles said. I am pleased that, in the latter half of the debate, there was a shift towards recognition that Scotland’s need for proper digital connectivity in the modern world is now absolute, as Kate Forbes eloquently argued—there is no disagreement on that between the political parties.
Mr Kelly gave a telling speech, and I was grateful that he pointed out that there is a lower rate of access to the internet among people from deprived communities who have lower incomes. To access benefits, as well as for most transactions, access to the internet is becoming nearly essential in this day and age, and I stress that we take that issue very seriously indeed. Already, 99 per cent of Scottish libraries offer free public wi-fi, following Scottish Government investment, but there is much more to do. In designing Scotland’s new social security agency, we have been clear that we will offer support through a variety of channels and will assist those people who want to apply digitally but who lack the skills or technology so to do. I place that on the record because Mr Kelly devoted his speech to that very important topic.
Perhaps too much time has been spent on percentages. My late father was an accountant, and, somewhat mischievously or cheekily, he opined that 50 per cent of people do not understand percentages. I do not imagine that that is true here in the chamber, but we got a bit bogged down with percentages, so I will try to deal with the basic points that emerged in the debate. Everybody agrees that access to high-speed broadband is important. The Scottish Government thinks that 30Mbps—that is now the definition of superfast; it has gone up from 24Mbps—is the standard that we should aspire to and that 10Mbps is too slow.
From people in commerce, we hear that a universal service obligation in Scotland of 10Mbps would lead almost entirely to wireless solutions rather than fibre, which providers would not be able to supply. Were it not for R100, I do not believe that we would be able to complete the task. That is where there is a difference of principle. As Kate Forbes said, we believe that, in order to equip Scotland digitally, the public and private sectors need to work in partnership—one sector working alone would not work.
The private companies are investing in our towns and cities—there has been a plethora of recent announcements, all of which are welcome. We obviously do not have a preference for any individual company, so we have welcomed all the major announcements by commercial companies over recent weeks. However, they will not cover our remote parts, including our islands, which is why public investment is necessary. The investment of £600 million is the largest investment in any single project that there has ever been in the UK, and it will focus on an outside-in approach—a point that Rhoda Grant made. Other countries, such as Estonia and Germany, decided a long time ago that the outside-in approach was necessary if their rural communities were not to be left behind. The market would not be able to do anything other than fail those communities, for very simple reasons.
I think that there is an intellectual divide between the Conservative Party and the rest, and it would not surprise me if that is how matters will rest tonight at the vote, although I very much hope that the Conservatives will support our motion.
I also consider that, as I argued before the select committee, it is essential to have a UK body such as a committee—which I presume Mr Hancock would chair—that meets on a standing basis and involves the DAs. In order to complete the task with the least difficulty and via the most friction-free pathway, we need to align the 10Mbps USO with the part of the R100 project that involves those to whom we will not be able to connect by means of fibre.
In my statement to Parliament last December, I clearly stated that £600 million is an initial investment, and I explained that it would deliver superfast access to a significant proportion of unserved premises. I also clearly stated that I did not expect it to deliver 100 per cent coverage on its own. I said:
“There will ... be further phases through which we will ensure that superfast broadband reaches each and every premises ... However, the initial phase is the key phase. Extending a future-proofed accessible fibre network to remote rural areas will provide the essential platform for delivering superfast broadband for all.”—[
, 19 December 2017; c 15.]
We expect our record investment to deliver a fantastic coverage outcome, which will push new fibre into rural areas, but we are planning for the possibility that that may not complete the job, and we are scoping options for future phases, which may include a superfast broadband voucher scheme. However, it will be possible for us know whether that is necessary only after the outcome of the procurement process is known. After all, until that tender process is completed it will not be possible for us to know what the commercial companies in the three segments will deliver.
In reply to Mr Greene, I point out that I am in charge of the project—the buck stops with me. I have clear responsibility. Clear lines of responsibility are set out and there is no confusion whatsoever. I am determined to work with everyone to discharge that responsibility.
R100 is designed to reach every home and business in Scotland by 2021—that is our aim, plan and determination. The question is, how many homes and businesses will we be able to deliver to through the first phase and with the £600 million funding and how many homes and businesses will receive their connection by means of fibre?
The benefits of fibre in future proofing, given the speeds at which access can be obtained, is clear. However, members may be interested to know that it is not possible under state aid rules to mandate, require or prescribe that fibre be used as opposed to alternative technologies. Therefore, it is clear that a voucher scheme will have to be considered, although only early next year will it be clear whether that will be necessary. If such a scheme proves to be necessary—which may be the more likely scenario—a fair amount of funding from the UK Government at that point would assist us in achieving that end.
The tender process that was announced in Parliament is under way. I am happy to confirm to Mr Rumbles that, as soon as the process of competitive dialogue is complete, there will be an announcement about the plans that will be put in place.
I very much hope that we can reset the relationship with the UK Government. I very much hope that Mr Hancock will acknowledge that the UK Government has the responsibility for the internet and for mobile telephony—as he admits. I very much hope that he will accept that that responsibility brings with it a financial duty, and I very much hope that he will accept a message from this Parliament that a contribution of just 3 per cent, which is around £21 million out of an estimated initial total of £600 million, is simply insufficient and unfair. Finally, I very much hope that that argument will be advanced over the coming weeks and months.
The Scottish Government is absolutely determined that Scotland’s citizens and businesses will have access to superfast broadband at 30Mbps, not 10Mbps, and that everybody should have it by the end of 2021. That is our pledge, and that is what I am determined to deliver.