A Connectivity Secretary Fergus Ewing said the decision to go with a 10 megabits per second Universal Service Obligation (USO) instead of one which would ensure superfast speeds was a “missed opportunity”. He said he has been seeking a meeting with Digital and Culture Minister Matt Hancock since October and it was “pretty dire” that one had not been forthcoming. Mr Ewing was giving evidence to Holyrood3‘s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee on the Scottish Government’s digital strategy, including a commitment to provide superfast broadband access across the country by 2021.
He said regulation is needed to ensure internet providers reach less profitable areas such as rural and island communities, but since telecoms is reserved the Scottish Parliament4 cannot create laws in this area. Mr Ewing said he had urged the UK Government to create a superfast broadband speed USO to ensure access to high-quality broadband across the UK. He said: “Unfortunately the UK Government has chosen the short-term option and set the USO at just 10 megabits per second, that is a missed opportunity and it does demonstrate how the reserved nature of telecoms can often undermine our policy ambitions here in Scotland.
“It’s not the taxpayers’ job to fund the provision of mobile or internet services in cities where frankly commercial operators already do that and make a good return.
“Where our money in Scotland and the UK comes in and is required is to get the other parts where commercial operators wouldn’t otherwise reach, the rural parts and the island parts, and sadly that’s where we’ve really been badly let down by the UK Government.
“Mr Hancock is the current minister, although despite having written to him on numerous occasions and requesting a meeting in October he has not thus far been amenable to arranging one.”
Green MSP5 John Finnie said UK ministers’ lack of engagement with Mr Ewing was “not acceptable”. He said: “Our ability as a committee to scrutinise is impeded by the unwillingness of the relevant UK ministers to engage with the Cabinet Secretary.
“I think that on one level is a discourtesy to the Scottish Government but I also think it is a discourtesy to this committee. We need to have meaningful scrutiny.”
SCDI’s Highlands & Islands Director, Fraser Grieve said: “The Highlands & Islands in particular has areas that do not have access to sufficient broadband speeds to meet the growing connectivity needs of those living and working in some of our most remote communities.
We need to not only see a plan to deliver a 10 megabits USO progressed, but to look at how we take the steps beyond that to ensure that rural Scotland it not left behind as connection speeds continue to increase in urban areas.”
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SUPERFAST broadband, a range of new walking routes and restoring peatlands have been unveiled as part of wide-ranging plans to improve Scotland1‘s largest national park. Proposals for the Cairngorms National Park include increasing woodland and investing in walking routes on Deeside and Speyside. The five-year plan also would also see action to improve natural habitats across the park for the benefit of local communities and visitor, as well as the plants and animals which depend upon them.
Red deer management policies will also be stepped up in order to ensure overgrazing does not undermine habitats or freshly-planted woodland. The proposal will be considered by the Cairngorms National Park Authority’s (CNPA) board before going to the Scottish government for approval. The 4,528 sq km park covers parts of the Highlands, Aberdeenshire and Perthshire and is twice the size of the Lake District National Park and bigger than the whole of Luxembourg.
A target to have 200 new affordable homes built by 2022 and delivering superfast broadband to “hard to reach” parts of the park has also been announced. The proposal will be considered by the Cairngorms National Park Authority’s (CNPA) board before going to the Scottish government for approval. Grant Moir, the CNPA’s chief executive, said: “There has been an incredible amount of work gone into developing the next National Park Partnership Plan (NPPP) – not only from our staff but from all the partners who have contributed and of course the public who took the time to respond to last year’s consultation.”
He added: “I think that the NPPP addresses a lot of the concerns and comments that were fed back to us and I think we are setting the park on the right course with a good balance between conservation, visitor experience and rural development.
“It is of course for the board to decide on the 7 April if it is the right direction, with the final say resting with ministers.”
A significant proportion of the National Park is made up by the Mar Lodge Estate, which at 29,000 hectares is the National Trust for Scotland’s (NTS) largest property. Stuart Brooks, NTS Head of Natural Heritage Policy, said: “We welcome the ambition of the Cairngorms National Park as set out in their draft Partnership Plan to improve the condition of habitats through deer management and other means.
“Red Deer are a vitally important component of the Cairngorms economy and its ecosystems and both can benefit through collaboration by landowners.
“The National Trust for Scotland, and other landowners, have made substantial progress already in restoring native woodlands over large areas by reducing deer densities.
“We hope this plan will help to encourage further expansion of native woodlands in the Park. Duncan Orr-Ewing, Chair of the LINK Deer Task Force added: “We welcome the CNPA’s step in the right direction to promote sustainable deer management in one of Scotland’s most outstanding areas for wildlife.
“This supports the CNPA’s statutory objectives, which include the sustainable use of natural resources and the conservation of the natural heritage.
“Public interest objectives such as restoration of protected areas and expansion of native woodland should be a priority in the Park and sustainable economic activity and community resilience should benefit from this.”
VISION is a grand thing in politics. It betokens ambition, confidence and hope. Yesterday, Finance Secretary Derek Mackay outlined a digital future for Scotland1, in which the whole country had superfast broadband (within five years), tens of thousands of jobs were created, and everyone was connected to everything everywhere in a cyber-safe society of electronic equals that transcended physical boundaries. However, vision is also useful for seeing what is going on at present, and the picture presented by Ross, Skye and Lochaber – normally praised for the aesthetic beauty of its physical landscape – is much less pretty in the digital sense. A survey from the House of Commons2 Library reveals that the constituency has the lowest average broadband speeds in Scotland and the second lowest in the UK after Carmarthen East, in Wales. In Ross, Skye and Lochaber, only 13 per cent of constituents have a superfast connection, which requires a broadband speed of at least 30 Megabits per second (Mbps). Indeed, 66 per cent of the constituency is unable to receive speeds of 10 Mbps and, as the area’s SNP3 MP Ian Blackford has pointed out, that is the minimum needed for services such as online banking and shopping websites that other people take for granted. Perhaps more worryingly, given our welfare system’s current penchant for punishing the poor, it creates problems for people on Universal Credit, who are expected to use the internet for “paperwork” such as making claims, keeping up-to-date records and filling in journals that prove they are not feckless. And that is before we consider the well-rehearsed business reasons for fast broadband, particularly in remote areas, where it enlarges markets as it shrinks distance, and where working from home with an internet connection should be a seriously good fit.
All of this helps keep native populations up and attracts new residents. We can sympathise when reasons of distance and terrain are adduced as difficulties in supplying communications infrastructure to remote areas. But campaigners and commentators have compared our geographical lot to that of the Faroe Islands, where every resident already has broadband at speeds among the fastest in the world. Scotland is not Faroe, of course, but we don’t necessarily mean that in a good way. The latter seems to have managed by better use of fibre-optic cable and by a much simpler and more straightforward contract with state-controlled company Faroese Telecom.
The Scottish Government4, by contrast, awarded the business to British Telecom – or BT Openreach; even the names are increasingly bewildering – and, according to critics, that has resulted in a less than optimal use of fibre-optic cable in a contract that is a hotch-potch of complex financial arrangements, with little or no scope for those left behind getting in alternative suppliers. None of which, if true, is down to Mr Mackay, who inherited the set-up (though, admittedly from his colleagues). No use in him looking back to what might have been.
But, looking ahead, for the people of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, it would be a grand thing if the future could be speeded up a little.