‘Laughable’, says Ewing of notion that Scotland is behind rest of UK on broadband

ewingCabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity Fergus Ewing has responded to UK Government claims that Scotland is lagging behind the rest of the UK on superfast broadband because the Scottish Government has been “sitting on UK taxpayers’ cash since 2014.”

Last week, UK Digital Minister Matthew Hancock said that millions of pounds are to be handed directly to Scottish councils for a new roll-out of fibre broadband because it was “fed up” with the SNP’s “poor performance”. Hancock told the Telegraph that Scotland is lagging behind the rest of the UK. But in a detailed response published last Friday, Ewing said: “There has been a great deal of misinformation from the UK Government”.

On Hancock’s claim that some English authorities had not only contracted the second phase but moved onto the third, before the Scottish Government have even started procuring phase 2, Ewing said: “The short answer is we didn’t choose to do DSSB in phases. English local authority projects were of a far smaller scale than our Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme and required additional phases.

The truth is that the Scottish Government, and our local authority partners, have developed an enviable delivery track record on broadband in recent years.

“Rather than taking forward 32 individual local authority-led procurements, we took the joint decision with local government partners, and the UK Government, that we would aggregate public investment across two regional projects in Scotland. This created a scale that has dwarfed any other project in the UK, extending broadband access to over 800,000 premises across Scotland so far, with further deployment to follow throughout 2018.

“The success of this approach, and the resultant scale of our ‘Phase 1’ project, removed the need to progress a Scottish ‘Phase 2’ project in a similar timescale to other parts of the UK. In effect, the DSSB programme is Phases 1, 2 and 3 rolled into one.

“The idea that Scotland is behind the rest of the UK simply because we haven’t yet launched a second procurement is laughable. The DSSB programme was constructed to avoid the need for successive small-scale procurements.

“The success of this approach is demonstrated by the coverage figures. The most recent Ofcom data shows that Scotland has made the fastest progress of any of the UK nations in extending superfast access.

“Now that the coverage footprint of DSSB is known, it makes sense to launch a new procurement, which we will do in the coming weeks. Crucially, we are doing this to deliver our commitment to 100% superfast broadband access by 2021 – a commitment that does not exist anywhere else in the UK.”

Ewing said Scotland was ready to launch its R100 programme; “but it is important to understand that the R100 programme is not equivalent to the Phase 2 projects progressed elsewhere in the UK. It will deliver superfast access to every premise in Scotland. No other part of the UK has made such a commitment.

“The UK Government appears happy to stop at 95% superfast coverage across the UK and consign those in the most rural areas to the slow-lane in terms of speeds, either through a 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation or by seeking a hastily constructed deal with BT to deliver something similar.” He added that Scotland’s universal service obligation has been set at 30Mbps, compared with 10Mbps for the rest of the UK.

Ewing said: “The DSSB programme will continue to deliver throughout 2018, utilising Gainshare and other residual funds within both contracts, and this will extend into every local authority area.

“We will formally launch the R100 procurement process in the coming weeks. This procurement will take place in parallel with continuing DSSB delivery through Gainshare, and we expect that R100 deployment will be underway across all of Scotland in 2019.

“The truth is that the Scottish Government, and our local authority partners, have developed an enviable delivery track record on broadband in recent years. The DSSB programme has delivered broadband access at a scale unmatched anywhere else in the UK. 800,000 premises and counting now have broadband available as a result of our investment. Audit Scotland has recognised the success of the programme and Ofcom figures demonstrate that the coverage gap has been closed.

“It is hugely unfortunate that a new intake of Scottish MPs appear intent on overlooking the facts, and underplaying what has been a success story for Scotland. This should be an opportunity for us to celebrate the success of the DSSB programme – a joint investment between our two Governments – and to collectively turn our attention to finishing the job through the R100 programme.

Instead, the UK Government has committed just £20.99 million to the programme – less than the amount allocated to Devon and Somerset for a less ambitious programme, and substantially less than the Scottish Government’s planned investment. Persuading UK Ministers to address this disparity in funding would seem to me to be a far more fruitful use of your time at Westminster than parroting baseless and false claims about broadband delivery in Scotland.”