R100 Broadband Programme

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 20 April 2022.

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Photo of Alexander Burnett Alexander Burnett Conservative

6. To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of the R100 programme in rural areas. (S6O-00971)

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

As of 31 March, 6,629 connections were delivered through R100 contract build and 1,875 were delivered through the Scottish broadband voucher scheme, which ensured that every address across Scotland, regardless of location, had the ability to access a superfast broadband connection.

As Audit Scotland recognises, R100 contract build is hugely challenging, with many premises in the hardest-to-reach locations. Instead of pursuing a lower-technology solution, we chose to focus on delivering full fibre broadband, which will underpin economic growth and connectivity for decades to come. Weather permitting, deployment of 16 subsea cables to service 15 islands will begin shortly.

Photo of Alexander Burnett Alexander Burnett Conservative

The finance secretary recently wrote to the Economy and Fair Work Committee, stating that the Scottish Government has

“delivered”— delivered!—its

“commitment to ensure that every home and business could access superfast broadband by the end of 2021.”

It is utterly ludicrous to expect people to believe that after the Government failed to meet its own targets and delayed the R100 roll-out by six years. Certainly, thousands of those in Aberdeenshire who are without a reliable broadband connection will not fall for that.

In an answer to me, the finance secretary confirmed that only 15 per cent of the £3.3 million for the voucher scheme has been handed out, and less than 0.5 per cent of eligible properties in the north-east have made applications. Will the minister commit to extending the scheme so that the remaining 85 per cent of the funding goes to those who need it?

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

As the member will be aware, the main scheme is still available. The interim scheme was extended to 31 March. There was an extensive local and national advertising campaign to promote the interim scheme, but take-up ultimately did not reflect the level of demand that would necessitate its continuation.

More broadly, the commitment to deliver R100 by the end of last year was not solely about contracts but was about commercial undertakings and the voucher scheme, which is still in place, as I said. I remind the member that, as part of R100, the Government has committed £600 million of investment, compared to—if I recall correctly—£33.5 million of investment from the UK Government.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The interim voucher scheme, which closed last month, was intended to plug the gaps in the communities with the lowest coverage in the country, which are predominantly in the north of Scotland. Not only has the take-up of that scheme been low, but Government figures have demonstrated that the poorest amount of money has gone to those in the north, compared to those in the south and central regions. Can the minister explain the logic of that?

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

The member is familiar with the intention behind the interim scheme. We extended the interim scheme. The original deadline was 31 December last year and we extended it to March. However, as I explained in my answer to Mr Burnett, ultimately, we judged that demand was not of a sufficient level to justify the continuation of the scheme.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party

I have been contacted by constituents who have been informed that they may have to wait until 2026—as has already been said—before getting connected to fibre broadband.

Community fibre broadband and the voucher scheme, which has been alluded to, are currently not viable options for them. How is the Scottish Government engaging with Openreach and other stakeholders? What further opportunities are being considered to support rural communities to connect to fibre broadband?

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

As part of our on-going dialogue with Openreach, we continue to look for opportunities to accelerate contract build, particularly in rural areas, where possible. Commercial investment also continues to play a key role in supporting digital connectivity. Our full fibre charter for Scotland is providing a platform for the Scottish Government and operators to work together to maximise full fibre coverage, including through the recently announced extension of 100 per cent non-domestic rates relief to March 2034, which surpasses a key charter commitment and offers the most extended period of rates relief in the UK.

Given that the area of telecoms is wholly reserved to Westminster, we continue to push the UK Government for greater flexibility on its plans for Scotland through project gigabit, as we believe that, once again, its current approach is likely to leave behind some areas that need improved connectivity the most.