Scotland’s Rural Economy Minister Fergus Ewing has claimed that the Conservative Government is ignoring devolved nations, in favour of a deal with BT which could hinder the rollout of faster internet to rural areas. He penned the response to a question aired in a recent Scottish parliamentary debate, and demanded proactive talks on broadband from his UK counterparts.
The rift opened in late July, when the UK Government revealed that it was considering a deal offered by BT to roll out internet to 99% of UK residences by 2022, at speeds of 10 Mb/s.
The £600 million deal is currently under consideration from the UK Government. Titled the Universal Broadband Commitment (UBC), it will circumvent official red-tape and public subsidies, being funded entirely by British Telecom itself.
But at the time Labour MP Tom Watson contested that these speeds were unacceptably slow, and the deal might incur hidden charges. Both he and Mr Ewing have been incensed by a report published at roughly the same time by the British Infrastructure Group (BIG), which detailed that rural areas – particularly those in Scotland – consistently suffer slower broadband speeds than the rest of the UK.
According to the report titled Broadband 2.0, Scotland takes four out of the five top-spots for worst-performance:
- Carmarthen East & Dinefwr (Wales)
- Ross, Skye & Lochaber (Scotland)
- Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Scotland)
- Orkney & Shetland (Scotland)
- Argyll & Bute (Scotland)
In his written parliamentary reply, Mr Ewing said: “The Scottish government would welcome any commercial investment that will improve Scotland’s digital infrastructure.
“We would want any such investment, however, to help to deliver the superfast broadband connections that our rural communities need, not just the 10 Mb/s that the UK government has decided is sufficient. And we would be concerned if the form of the investment had a negative impact on the delivery of our investment plans.”
He concluded: “It is vital, therefore, that the UK government shares the full detail of BT’s proposal with us, so that we can assess whether and how it will contribute to Scotland’s superfast ambitions. We have again called upon the UK government to set up a working group, involving the devolved administrations and Ofcom, to consider the impact of this offer as a matter of urgency.”
But when questioned by DIGIT, a spokesperson for BT contested: “BT’s offer is not a substitute for the superfast ambitions of devolved administrations and others, but will seek to make sure that in the absence of superfast services from other sources, no-one who wants a good broadband service will be left behind.
“We think this will be complementary to the Scottish Government’s 100% commitment, and our Scotland team will be discussing the detail with the Scottish Government. Scotland has the most significant geographic challenges in the UK, and arguably in Europe, when it comes to deploying fibre. That’s why, over the last several years, we’ve been working in partnership with the public sector on the £428m Digital Scotland rollout to reach the places not included in any commercial upgrades.
“This rollout has now reached 780,000 premises and counting, with the independent Think Broadband website showing that more than 90 per cent of Scottish premises now have access to superfast speeds of 30 Mb/s plus. The rollout is ongoing, alongside continuing commercial investment in Scotland’s digital infrastructure, which means that statistics in every part of Scotland continue to improve.”
The spokesperson also stressed that the 10 Mb/s figure is regarded as a baseline minimum, and many users can expect faster speeds when the rollout is complete.
But another worry is accountability. Stripping back the Government red tape, another question emerges: who will BT be beholden to if they miss their targets?