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Politics / Digital minister reiterates commitment to broadband programme but admits timescale is ‘challenging’

Scotland's finance secretary Kate Forbes.

SCOTLAND’s minister for digital economy has admitted that the timeframe for delivering superfast broadband to every property in the country is “challenging by anybody’s standards”.

Kate Forbes, however, said that the Scottish Government’s “commitment is there” when it comes to delivering fibre broadband to all.

The MSP is currently in Shetland on a two-day visit, with the minister visiting local digital companies NB Communications and Mesomorphic in Lerwick on Monday.

Today (Tuesday) Forbes is speaking to representatives of Shetland Islands Council as part of the other part of her portfolio – public finance.

Speaking on Tuesday morning, the MSP said she was “really impressed and amazed” by the wide reach of digital businesses in Shetland like web design and digital marketing company NB.

Forbes also praised the “supportive nature of the business community” in Shetland.

Underpinning technological companies in places like Shetland, however, is a need for reliable and fast connectivity.

Forbes said she regarded broadband and mobile connectivity as “on the same level now as other utilities like electricity.”.

“It’s critically important, and over the last five years, there’s been a huge increase in the number of premises that have fibre broadband access,” she said.

Photo: Pixabay.com

“I think it’s gone from about 29 per cent having access in September 2014 to 74 per cent in September 2019.

“Clearly, we want to get to 100 per cent and that’s where our Reaching 100 programme kicks in to ensure that no business or organisation or property is left behind.”

The Reaching 100 programme – or R100 – aims to deliver blanket coverage of fibre broadband with speeds of at least 30Mbps by the end of the 2021.

But concerns have been expressed about the target timescale, with no supplier yet contracted to carry out the work.

Forbes said around 95 per cent of Scotland is covered so far, but she said it is “always going to be challenging to reach the last properties”.

Fibre broadband is not currently available in some of Shetland’s outer isles and parts of the westside as they grapple with low speeds.

“In terms of timescales, procurement is ongoing, and the aim is to award a contract by the end of the year, and delivery timescales would then be confirmed once a supplier or suppliers are in place,” Forbes said.

“But we’ve committed £600m to delivering R100. Despite broadband being wholly, legally and regulatory a responsibility of UK ministers, of that £600m, only £21m is being met by the UK Government.

“Our commitment is there, we’ve committed the money. It’s challenging by anybody’s standards, but we’re doing it because we recognise that we want 100 per cent of properties to have access.”

With her public finance hat on, Forbes said that she hopes to “listen and understand” the needs of Shetland Islands Council while at the same forging an “ongoing relationship” as the Scottish Government heads into the budget-setting process for 2020/21.

She pointed to the £10.2 million the government has given the council for running its internal ferries over the last two years, but that has fallen short of the local authority’s full ask.

Forbes called on newly elected Liberal Democrat Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart to engage “constructively” in the budget process, claiming that her predecessor Tavish Scott did not do so in previous years.

“As we go into the next budget process, there’s an invitation from me to the MSP for the Shetland Islands to participate constructively in that budget process,” she said.

“The Scottish Government is a minority government – it needs support to get a budget through, and within that there is an opportunity for every MSP to make their case for funding and to participate in the budget process.”