We all know that broadband had stopped being a luxury and is now a necessity for most people. As the Deputy Convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee as well as a rural member, this is high up my agenda for the next four and a half years. I have also been made a digital reporter to find out how we can implement the Scottish Government’s R100 programme, where the difficulties lie and how much we think it’s all going to cost. The programme aims to roll out superfast broadband to all premises in Scotland by 2021. A tough ask and a huge commitment to our rural areas.
I am often contacted by constituents because they want to know when superfast is coming to their area, sometimes it’s not even superfast, many people would be grateful for any kind of internet connection. Others just want a mobile phone signal. There have been numerous times in the parliament when 3g and 4g are mentioned and I am reminded of the hustings in Lochinver when the chair said “what’s a g?”.
But on a serious note, connectivity is vital to rural areas. Many of our small businesses rely on their website to take bookings or to guide people to their location. Even a small interruption to the service can be devastating and we need a commitment from BT Openreach that any reported faults are dealt with in a timeous manner, especially if the person is vulnerable or it’s their only means of communication.
Good news from the current rollout in the highlands and Islands is that the take up has been so high that BT are investing a further £2.3 million is being re-invested back into the project. This means a further 6,000 premises will be reached by the project next year and will take total access to the fibre network in the region to 86%.
As we go forward, we now face one of the most difficult challenges of our years in government. The commitment to 100% superfast coverage is not an easy task and we will have to explore every option to make this a reality.
Satellite and community broadband are possible solutions and there are already some success stories around the country. We will also be looking at how it’s been done in other places where rural constraints are present but where innovative solutions have been used to facilitate connections.
We know there are many pro-active communities all over my constituency and elsewhere but it needs buy in and effort; it’s not an easy task but it can be done and it’s very rewarding. Ullapool boats one of these communities. Recently Broom Power, a community run enterprise, raised enough investment to enable a new hydro scheme to go ahead in the area. Ullapool Community Trust have now set up ‘Broadband for the Future’ - a scheme to provide Next Generation Broadband to various places on the west coast that have yet to be served by the roll out.