Doubts raised over achievement of broadband target

Audit Scotland report on superfast broadband

A REPORT by Audit Scotland has questioned how the Scottish Government will achieve targets for 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage by the end of 2021.

In its latest report into the state of broadband rollout in Scotland in areas not covered by commercial providers, the Auditor General says that the government faces its “toughest hurdle” yet with some 25 per cent of rural properties still not achieving speeds of 10 Mb/s.

The latest definition of “superfast”, adopted by the Scottish Government, is 30 Mb/s.

The report updates two previous audits on broadband progress in 2015 and 2016.

Audit Scotland’s director of performance, audit and best value Fraser McKinlay said: “Fast, reliable internet access is now considered an essential part of everyday life.

“Good progress has been made to date but the toughest hurdle remains – to extend the benefits to everyone, particularly remote and rural communities.

Fraser McKinlay

“As well as being the toughest hurdle, it is not yet clear how the Scottish Government is going to fulfil its pledge to deliver superfast broadband to everyone by the end of 2021.”

The auditor said that while the Scottish Government had achieved its initial target to provide fibre broadband access to 95 per cent of premises, its more recent ‘Reaching 100 per cent’ ambition would be more difficult to realise.

Orkney and Shetland Member of Parliament Alistair Carmichael said that the report showed the government had taken the wrong approach to delivering broadband to rural areas.

He said: “This report is absolutely correct. Depressingly, I could have told them this four years ago when it was apparent that the Scottish Government’s approach of delivering super fast broadband to the easy to reach places was going to leave the people who needed it most without it.

“The worrying thing is that they show little sign of having learned the lessons of past failure. Unless they listen to communities and work with them the same mistakes will be repeated.”

Up to 31 March 2018, £259 million had been paid to BT for broadband roll-out. Lower costs and higher take-up is expected to enable around 60,000 more premises to be reached with this budget than originally planned.

According to the report, BT has been the sole contractor in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles. Shetland is marginally the best connected of the three island areas with over 75 per cent broadband connection.

When it comes to speeds, Shetland, at a claimed 20 Mb/s average, is mid-way between the Western Isles, which has slightly better speeds, and Orkney, the worst performer of all local authority areas. Perhaps surprisingly, both Aberdeenshire and the Scottish Borders have slightly slower average speeds than Shetland.

The report adds that people’s experience of broadband speeds is often lower than those claimed. Overall speeds have increased across Scotland, but rural homes and offices still lag behind urban areas – around a quarter cannot receive 10 Mb/s.

The government’s “Reaching 100 per cent” programme says every home and business will have access to superfast broadband (speeds of 30 Mb/s or more) by the end of 2021.

It has committed £600 million initial investment to deliver superfast broadband to 147,000 premises, with contracts to be awarded early next year. Further investment may be required to reach all premises.

The report also points out that Community Broadband Scotland (CBS) did not deliver on its anticipated benefits. CBS was set up to back local initiatives but only 13 of the 63 it helped finance have proved successful.

Community groups say this has undermined their confidence in the Scottish Government and Highlands and Islands Enterprise to support rural broadband. The report says lessons need to be learned from this.

Minister for energy, connectivity and the islands Paul Wheelhouse welcomed the report which “highlights the excellent progress made by the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme”.

Wheelhouse added: “We exceeded our 95 per cent coverage target by the end of 2017 and our investment, alongside that of our partners, has transformed the availability of broadband in rural Scotland and the report acknowledges that a further 60,300 premises will gain access as a result of the “Gainshare” mechanism we introduced.”

He said the 100 per cent commitment was “unmatched anywhere else in the UK.”

Wheelhouse added: “We have backed our commitment with a record £600 million (96.5 per cent funding by Scottish Government) in initial funding for procurement of the Reaching 100 per cent programme and are currently in dialogue with three suppliers.

“We expect to award the contracts in 2019 and remain confident that delivery of these, alongside other interventions, will allow the target to be met.”