Council leader calls for greater cooperation between governments to ensure digital connectivity in Highlands

A local council leader has called for greater cooperation between governments to ‘get broadband done’ to better serve some of the most remote communities in Scotland.

Margaret Davidson, leader of Highland Council, has spoken of the urgency to use mitigation measures such as voucher schemes, in combination with short-term fixes and longer term solutions which will allow for the rolling out of superfast and gigabit capable digital connectivity in the Highlands.

She said the COVID-19 public health crisis has had a far greater impact on rural communities than in urban areas owing to the fact that internet speeds have tended to be slower in regions where infrastructure has not been established. As a result, home-working and running businesses effectively has proven to be more difficult compared to people in large cities and towns.

She said: “We need to get it [broadband] done. I’m not just talking about superfast broadband. Our wish is to have fibre to the premises across the Highlands; this is the future, this is what will give people the certainty and the ability to work from home and to lead connected lives that we are really needing here in the Highlands.

“The pandemic has taught us a lot, but it’s taught us that broadband is absolutely vital for our wellbeing, our education and just the connectedness of our communities, to keep people feeling that they’re part of what’s going on. It’s hugely important for us and that is our key recovery ambition: fibre to premises.”

Davidson held talks this week with both the Scottish and UK governments to press the case for greater ambition from existing commitments to digital infrastructure. She said she was encouraged that both Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands at the Scottish Government and Iain Stewart, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Scotland, UK Government, have agreed to meet and discuss how the needs of communities living in some of the remotest parts of Scotland, with some of the poorest connectivity, could benefit from investment from both governments.

But she said: “I was really encouraged by the positive tone at these meetings and the willingness to make progress on improving digital connectivity in the Highlands. How we deliver that is the issue: it’s not all about R100 but thank goodness it is now out of the blocks and moving. We need to be working with UK government, too, who are doing their Outside-In gigabit project. We need to be asking them both to cooperate so that we’re not duplicating, we’re not missing anything and that we actually have a plan for Highlands. We’re moving forward with both parties meeting and discussing what we need; that’s the first big move, and that’s a big one.”

According to Ofcom local authorities in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland have seen some of the largest increases in superfast broadband availability in the UK in recent years. However, the proportion of premises that can access fixed broadband speeds of at least 30 Mbit/s in Highland Council’s region is around 80% compared to 92% throughout the country as a whole. Superfast broadband ambitions for those speeds have also been superseded by the potential of fibre broadband, which is an order of magnitude faster than the connectivity of services delivered through copper wire.

Cities such as Stirling in Scotland have worked with CityFibre to install entire new underground networks of fibre, in a street by street approach, with premises then able to complete the last leg of connectivity via network operators such as Vodafone. In rural locations, digging along vast stretches of road is likely to be a far greater infrastructure challenge, although fixed wireless access (FWA) technology is coming on stream; this allows for smaller base station 4G or 5G cellular units to be installed, which enables lower cost provision for broadband to remote locations. A recent acquisition of Highland Wireless by Lothian Broadband shows an intent that FWA could potentially be part of a ‘targeted’ solution, notwithstanding the fact that BT is in the process of agreeing final terms with the Scottish Government to be the major provider for the delayed Lot 1 of the R100 – ‘Reaching 100%’ – programme.

Davidson acknowledges the “complexity” of the market, but she says she would like BT to commit to as much of R100 as possible being delivered as fibre to the premises, adding: “Of course, a lot of it comes down to how much money is in the pot. There are other issues, too. Communities might be asked to help deliver it, private money might be bought to the table, there’s a whole range of needs to be discussed. That’s why we need these meetings to come forward and see if one government’s money, plus another government’s money means a much better programme for Highlands. We want to be the best connected area in Europe and we need to get people behind us for this.”

She said another options that should be explored is the pooling of government-backed schemes which allow for people and businesses to apply for broadband vouchers which help meet the cost of installation. Davidson would like for communities to be able to pool their resources and she said that BT has shown a willingness to “look at the economics” of doing so; under the Scottish Government scheme up to £5,000 is available to help homes and businesses not in scope of either R100 contracts or planned commercial investment to obtain superfast broadband where providers may not ordinarily go. Under the UK scheme, rural premises with broadband speeds of less than 100Mbps can use vouchers worth £1,500 per home and up to £3,500 for each small to medium-sized business (SME) to support the cost of installing new fast and reliable connections.

Davidson said all possible means need to be explored as a matter of urgency during a pandemic which is costing livelihoods now, not some far-off point in the future. She wants to see existing infrastructure as well as mast-based and satellite technology used as potential short-term solutions, “with a view to bringing in fibre to premises as soon as is practicably possible”. In addition, high speed digital connectivity should be available as part of all new housing developments “as soon as people move in and not waiting and doing it all as an afterthought”, she added, all of which would create jobs in the region to maintain the new infrastructure and help businesses thrive.

It has now become such a priority that the matter will be raised as part of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands (CoHI), which is due to meet in a few weeks’ time. Davidson said Colin Cook, Digital Director, Scottish Government, will be taking part in the six-monthly meeting to update regional leaders as they press the case for urgent action on connectivity.

She said: “I’m not underestimating the size of the challenge ahead of us. It is huge. But it [connectivity] will be part of so many of these conversations. For example, we’re going to be discussing depopulation and you can’t talk about depopulation and retaining your population without talking about broadband. And if we want to attract people to come and live and work in the Highlands, as many more people want to do based on what we are seeing as a result of the pandemic, we need future-proofed connectivity in place.”