Broadband Roll-out (Dumfries and Galloway)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 11th March 2021.

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Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

1. To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on broadband roll-out in Dumfries and Galloway. (S5O-05106)

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

Thinkbroadband reports that superfast coverage in Dumfries and Galloway stands at 87 per cent, up from 17 per cent in January 2014.

Dumfries and Galloway has 8,300 properties in scope for the R100 south lot contract, which delivered its first live connections in Biggar in Lanarkshire in December. Eligible south lot premises will receive a full-fibre solution, which allows gigabit connectivity. R100 contract build is programmed in phases, with build in Dumfries and Galloway across a number of phases. First connections in the area are likely to be delivered next month, with more than 850 properties in the Dumfries exchange area receiving connections by July.

Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

I welcome the progress that will be made in the coming months, which will give more residents and businesses access to broadband.

The minister is aware that mobile connectivity is also a challenge in Dumfries and Galloway. What is the Scottish Government doing to improve that, bearing in mind that both broadband and mobile connectivity, as part of the telecommunications sector, are matters that are reserved to the United Kingdom Government?

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

Joan McAlpine is correct: mobile connectivity is reserved, as is broadband. However, we intervene through our own measures to address market failure. She will be aware that the Scottish 4G infill programme has been important for us. The first mast that we delivered was at New Luce in Galloway, and that site has been operational for more than a year. Four more sites in Dumfries and Galloway will be delivered through the project, at Ae near Dumfries, Auchenhessnane near Thornhill, Cairngarroch in southern Rhins and Loch Head in the Machars.

Good progress is being made, with all four sites expected to be operational in the coming months into the summer—the one in Ae is due to be operational this spring. All those masts, plus the two that are now live in Ettrick in Selkirkshire and Whitropefoot near Newcastleton in Liddesdale, in Ms McAlpine’s region of South Scotland, will help to improve mobile coverage in some of the most remote parts of Scotland. I am delighted that the programme is proving to be so successful. The Scottish Government’s website will, I hope, provide further progress updates on other masts across the network. I encourage members in other parts of Scotland to keep themselves posted on progress.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

Only 7 per cent of premises in Dumfries and Galloway have full fibre. Although R100 will boost that number, it covers only 13 per cent of premises. If full fibre is seen as the best solution, does the minister agree that one helpful measure would be for the Scottish Government to consider mandating full fibre in all new-build properties? At present, around 6 per cent of new homes in Scotland continue to miss out on full-fibre connections—they are largely those on the smaller sites that are seen in rural areas such as Dumfries and Galloway.

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

Colin Smyth raises an important point. It is true that the full-fibre needs of new developments must also be addressed. I know that BT provides a package for any development of more than 20 properties—it is largely free full fibre, because of the scale of the development. I know that Mr Stewart, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, is closely examining the matter in relation to building regulations.

With the pandemic, we have seen digital connectivity become not just a nice thing to have but an absolute necessity for people who work from home or who educate their children at home, so we want to see full fibre extended.

As Joan McAlpine indicated, regulation of and legislation on broadband are reserved to UK ministers, and we continue to press them to invest in the region and fulfil the promises that they have made around gigabit connectivity. I have had constructive discussions with Matt Warman MP about attracting further funding to Scotland. We look forward to seeing the UK Government come up with funding to meet the aspirations that it has expressed.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

As R100 is taken forward in Dumfries and Galloway as well as in Orkney and Shetland, at the other end of the country, what assurances can the minister give that Openreach will be encouraged to work with local, suitably trained contractors? That would allow those contractors to benefit from the workstream and minimise the risks that are associated with essential workers moving around the country unnecessarily.

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

Liam McArthur raises a fair question. The commercial decision is for BT in fulfilling the contract, but if Mr McArthur wishes to provide details of any particular companies that are actively seeking to participate in the R100 programme—I know that he has made representations before—we can pass them on to BT and Openreach to ensure that those opportunities are taken up.

Mr McArthur is right to say that we want local jobs to be created around Scotland as a result of the £600 million investment in R100. I would like that to be extended to our island communities as we roll out the programme, with a long-term legacy of building up the supply chain. It would certainly be in our interests to make that happen, and I would be happy to follow that up with Mr McArthur.