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UK Strips Scottish Government of Broadband Powers

Brian Baglow

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Scotland's broadband

The UK’s Digital Minister has confirmed that power will be removed from Holyrood and given directly to Scotland’s local authorities.

Following an increasingly fiery debate over who’s responsible for what, the UK government has confirmed it is  removing the responsibility for next generation fibre broadband from the Scottish Government.

The UK’s Digital Minister Matt Hancock made the announcement yesterday, during a visit to the Scottish borders. The decision follows weeks of disagreement over the status of broadband in Scotland.

The Scottish government and first minister have repeatedly stated that the country is beating targets for its R100 broadband rollout, while the UK government maintains that Scotland is lagging behind the rest of the country.

The Scottish government, in turn, claims that Westminster has been dragging its feet and that Scotland has been ‘forced to intervene’ in terms of full fibre rollout.

In a statement to the commons last week, Mr Hancock told MPs: “In 2014, we gave the Scottish Government more than £20 million for Phase 2 of their superfast roll-out. Three years later, they have not only failed to sign that contract but have not even opened the procurement yet. The Scottish Government are three years behind the fastest English local authorities in contracting for their roll-out.

“As a result of our experience of delivering superfast broadband through the Scottish Government thus far, we have decided that for the next generation of broadband technology – full fibre – we will instead deal directly with local authorities across Scotland, as we do in England.”

Scotland’s Broadband

Following last week’s Budget, Mr Hancock said Scottish councils will be able to bid directly for funding from a new £190 million programme to speed up the roll-out of full 5G fibre networks.

The rollout of superfast broadband across Scotland, is a power reserved by Westminster. However, devolved administrations in the nations are responsible for broadband roll-out in areas where providers such as BT and Virgin are unwilling or unable to provide it on a commercial basis.

Approximately 30% of Scottish homes fall into this category and in 2010 the UK Government introduced a subsidy, which provided £100 million to Scottish Government for delivery.

According to Mr Hancock, the contracts for the second phase of rollout have yet to be signed, despite funding being available for several years.

The minister claims: “The Scottish Government are three years behind and have been sitting on UK taxpayers’ cash since 2014 when they should have been delivering for people in Scotland.”

What? Who…?

Confusion – and there’s a lot of confusion – over the actual status of Scotland’s broadband infrastructure begins with the overall speeds. Recent research from speedtest experts Ookla seem to show that Scotland’s fixed internet speeds are leading the rest of the UK.

Confusion continues over the roles and responsibilities of each administration in terms of broadband rollout. Recent research by The Ferret indicated that the Scottish Government’s powers were not as extensive as claimed by Westminster.

Adding to this is the fact that the definition of superfast broadband in indeed ‘fibre’ itself is inconsistent and can lead to yet more confusion.

According to Think Broadband:

  • If fibre based means any speed with VDSL2/FTTP/cable then the four nations are (in terms of coverage):
    • England 97.2%
    • Scotland 96.1%
    • Wales  96.1%
    • Northern Ireland 98.5%
  • If fibre based means VDSL2/FTTP/cable at speeds above 15 Mbps then it is (again in terms of coverage):
    • England 97%
    • Scotland 94.2%
    • Wales 94.7%
    • Northern Ireland 88.4%

The site goes onto summarise the problems this lack of clarity can cause: “If there is one recommendation we would make to politicians and any other official who is talking about what a BDUK project has delivered, please make it clear what you mean by fibre based, high speed broadband, fast broadband as there are many varied definitions and while we can usually decipher the likely meaning it is common to see local press who do not live and breathe broadband to get confused and transpose fibre based coverage targets or totals with superfast, and for example in the Unity Authority that covers the Highlands this can be a big difference i.e. currently 90.9% with anything fibre based but this drops to 76.2% with a superfast access option.

“We need to highlight something that has become clear when members of the public query our figures and that many presume that fibre based coverage does equal superfast broadband and at times we feel that it is an uphill battle with the constant explanations.”

On Time, On Budget, Higher Speeds

Writing for DIGIT in September 2017, Brendan Dick, the director of BT Scotland, praised the country’s progress in broadband provision, saying: “It’s on time, on budget and, indeed, has delivered more coverage at higher speeds than originally planned to date, with work ongoing.”

So where does this leave us? As a country, Scotland is either leading the rest of the UK, or lagging far behind. We’re either exceeding expectations, or failing miserably. The truth, we suspect, will be somewhere in between those extremes, but while broadband remains a political issue, don’t expect the hype, hyperbole or the headlines to contribute meaningfully in any way.

In the meantime, DIGIT is investigating. Watch this space…

Movers and shakers

Brian Baglow

Editor

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