Islands to suffer from broadband inequality

The Scottish Government’s R100 programme, which is supposed to bring superfast broadband access to every household, will leave thousands in the Western Isles dependent on their own efforts.

By Brian Wilson
Thursday, 25th November 2021, 10:49 am
Councillor Donald Crichton
Councillor Donald Crichton

This emerges from a report to councillors in advance of a presentation next week by Clive Downing, the Scottish Government’s programme director for Reaching 100 which states: “At this stage, it is estimated that 2000 properties in the Outer Hebrides will not receive fibre to the premises”.

Stating that “the scope of the R100 roll-out has now been finalised”, the report warns: “There are risks that communities which do not benefit from full-fibre digital infrastructure could become less attractive locations within which to live and work which could have implications in relation to the key population and place objectives”.

For those excluded from the fibre network, there will be an option to pursue a “national led voucher scheme” based on payments of up to £5000 per property. It will be left to communities to form “community fibre partnerships” with “one member of the community acting as lead”.

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The entire selection process for who is in and out of the fibre network appears to have been left to BT Openreach without any community consultation, resulting in huge anomalies in coverage with no right of appeal. The report says reassuringly that “BT Openreach has appointed Community Fibre Partnership Engagement Managers”.

Communities left outside the scheme are referred to a Scottish Government web-site which lists “local suppliers”. Apart from BT Openreach, the only one with a current islands presence appears to be Voove, based in Benbecula. Others included in the list are located in Northumberland and Middlesex.

A third strand of the programme is “commercial coverage” which means suppliers like EE connecting to premises. However, this is unlikely to reach many of the more peripheral places that have been excluded by BT Openreach from the fibre roll-out.

It is intended that 2000 properties will be connected to the fibre network between next year and 2027 and these will be eligible in the meantime for “an interim voucher worth £400-£650 to improve their broadband speeds in the meantime”.

However, this has to be claimed by the end of December – barely a month away.

The report stresses: “The differing nature of the deployment of new digital technology has the potential to lead to inequalities in terms of access to digital services including those which support business and personal development” – a key decision for the fate of peripheral communities which has been left to a private commercial interest.

It concludes: “Achieving 100 per cent high-speed broadband coverage throughout the Outer Hebrides is a strategic priority for the Comhairle and a key action from the joint Comhairle/H I Enterprise Economic Recovery Strategy.

"Covid-19 highlighted the increasing importance of digital connectivity to our communities, providing a number of direct economic benefits.”

Chair of the c omhairle ’s sustainable development committee, Donald Crichton, said: “We will be pressing Mr Downing and the Scottish Government very hard about the roll-out of this programme. It is pretty pathetic that communities are to be left to organise their own broadband . It will inevitably lead to exclusion for ma ny of the places within the islands that are most i n nee d of le ve l l in g-up , to borrow a phrase, rather than fur t her disadvant age ”.