Rural communities left behind by Scottish broadband plan

Audit Scotland has warned that the Scottish government’s plans to provide fibre broadband access to 100% of premises in Scotland by 2021 will be ‘difficult to realise’ as geographical constraints and technology limitations slow progress

In a report issued on 20 September 2018, Audit Scotland examined public sector spending on internet infrastructure to reach areas not covered by commercial providers. It found that Scottish citizens are often experiencing lower broadband speeds than those claimed by providers, depending on geographical location, underlying technology and the broadband package purchased.

Under the Reaching 100% Programme (R100) the Scottish government has committed ‘to deliver superfast broadband access to 100% of premises in Scotland by 2021’. As part of the program, it aims to extend ‘next generation access’ providing download speeds of at least 30 megabytes per second (Mb/s) across the entirety of the country, including the Highlands and Islands. The report found that the government had achieved its target to provide access to fibre optic broadband to 95% of premises by 31 December 2017 but that the government, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) or service providers ‘cannot guarantee the actual speeds premises will receive or experience. Speeds may vary due to technical and geographic reasons’.

In addition to variable download speeds, Audit Scotland observed that: ‘Community Broadband Scotland (CBS) did not deliver the anticipated benefits for rural community broadband projects. A review of CBS’s role found that a lack of specialist skills, poor communication and complex tendering requirements contributed to lengthy delays and failed procurements. Community groups told us this has affected their confidence in the ability of the Scottish Government and HIE to deliver broadband to rural communities.’

The Scottish government has initially committed an investment of £600m to deliver high-speed broadband to 147,000 premises with additional contracts to be awarded in 2019. This money is ‘aimed at prioritising superfast fibre connections to as many as possible of the estimated 147,000 rural premises not currently receiving at least 24 Mb/s’. Audit Scotland recommends that the Scottish government should ‘establish robust contract management and assurance processes to ensure the next round of contracts can deliver value for money’ and ‘have the right skills and people in place for the duration of the contract.’

Access to broadband is of importance to rural communities and businesses, not least because of the approach of HMRC’s Making Tax Digital (MTD). From April 2019, businesses with taxable turnover above the VAT registration limit of £85,000 will be required to submit their returns to HMRC electronically. The lack of high-speed broadband poses a significant problem to businesses based in the Highlands and Islands.

Audit Scotland warns that further investment in addition to the £600m earmarked by the Scottish government may be necessary to achieve the aims of the R100 programme. Various options are being considered, including laying additional fibre optic cables, developing wireless infrastructure or employing existing satellite coverage.

Fraser McKinlay, Audit Scotland's director of performance audit and best value, 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.

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

The report, Superfast broadband for Scotland: further progress update, is here

Report by James Bunney

James Bunney

James Bunney, Accountancy magazine and Accountancy Daily...

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