Scottish Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing and UK Digital Minister, Matt Hancock have traded yet more barbed comments over Scotland’s broadband capabilities.
The comments from Ewing and Hancock mark the latest development in a long-running argument on the quality and quantity of Scotland’s broadband coverage.
Leading The UK
Now, Ewing’s most recent comments (penned in The Telegraph) have asserted that Scotland is, “leading the UK,” on broadband coverage. Ewing wrote the article to rebut claims from Hancock that Scotland is underperforming in the rollout of superfast broadband, which Hancock made at the weekend citing a new report from industry regulator Ofcom.
The Connected Nations report states that Scotland is indeed lagging behind in terms of superfast broadband coverage. According to Ofcom, only 87% of Scottish residences are covered by superfast services, compared to 89% in Wales and 92% in England.
However, the report also shows that Scotland has made the most significant strides in both coverage (rising from 83% of households in 2016 to 87% in 2017) and average download speeds (rising from 35 Mbps to 42 Mbps in the same time). Rural coverage also increased 10% between 2016 and 2017, versus an average of 7% compared to the rest of the UK.
Ewing’s assertions also follow the announcement from the SNP of a £600 million initiative to cover the entirety of Scotland with superfast broadband. Announced by Cabinet Secretary for Finance Derek Mackay last Thursday, the Reaching 100 (R100) programme aims to enable superfast access in all Scottish premises by 2021.
Making his announcement of the project, Mr Mackay said: “The budget includes the first steps towards one of the most significant infrastructure projects in this parliament – superfast broadband for the whole of Scotland. At the end of this year we will achieve our target of delivering fibre internet access to at least 95% of premises.
“As a result of our actions to date Scotland has experienced the fastest rate of progress of any part of the UK. But we want that progress to continue. Our new Reaching 100 Programme is an ambitious plan to make superfast broadband available to every home and every business premise in every part of Scotland by 2021.
Scotland Open for Business
“Investment in skills and innovation, new technologies, manufacturing, infrastructure and broadband: these are all part of a package of measures to improve our productivity, boost our trade and make Scotland the most attractive place to do business.”
In his Telegraph column, Ewing added: “In his… comments, the UK Government Minister for Digital (referring to Hancock) claims that we are “sitting on millions of pounds” given to us by the UK Government. Again, this is false. This money was incorporated into our R100 procurement, as it was the most effective use for it.
“The UK Government would like you to think that Scotland was lagging behind the rest of the UK when it comes to broadband, however the reality couldn’t be any more different. We have gone further than anyone else in making sure that more individuals will have access to superfast broadband, making Scotland not only one of the fastest connected nations, but also one of the fairest.”
Scotland’s Lower Performance
In response, Digital Minister Matt Hancock on Monday claimed that the SNP were ‘rattled’ on broadband coverage – placing blame for Scotland’s ‘lower’ performance on coverage on the Scottish Government. He added that the SNP, considering Ewing’s claims, “need to be shocked out of their stupor.”
The Ofcom report does cite a ‘stark’ urban-rural divide in Scotland, noting 2% of properties in Scottish towns and cities could not get ‘decent’ (let-alone superfast) broadband versus 27% of households in the countryside.
Hancock said of the Connected Nations report: “They [the SNP] were a long way behind the rest of the UK and the report shows they still are. These excuses will be given short shrift by people who have watched buffering on their screens for three years while the SNP have been dreaming of independence.”
Reserved V Devolved
Ultimate responsibility is a complicated issue, as although broadband policy is reserved for Westminster, devolved administrations are responsible for delivering its roll-out in areas where providers such as BT and Virgin are unwilling to deliver on a commercial basis.
Ewing has promised to update Holyrood with more details on the Scottish Government’s R100 programme, and is expected to assert his interim objective of 95% superfast coverage by the end of this month – an increase of 8% over Ofcom’s figures.
Delivering Their Responsibilities
A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “In selectively quoting last week’s Ofcom report, Mr Ewing omits to mention that it found that double the proportion of homes in Scotland cannot get decent broadband compared to England.
“The SNP has been caught napping in its delivery of broadband and thousands of homes in rural Scotland are missing out as a result. It is only right for UK ministers to join Scottish communities in demanding they get on with delivering their responsibilities. “