Kate Forbes has hit out at the ‘missed opportunity’ of the UK Government’s ‘project gigabit’ scheme in connecting the hardest to reach areas of Scotland to superfast broadband.

The Scottish Government’s economy and finance secretary has revealed she has appealed directly to UK ministers and in correspondence to reformulate their digital connectivity policy, which she accused of focusing on the ‘cheapest, commercially easiest to reach properties.’

She told a Holyrood committee that she has asked both levelling up minister and digital minister – departments headed by Michael Gove and Nadine Dorries – to remove an ‘arbitrary’ cost cap of £7,000 on connecting some of the remotest premises in Scotland, which have the ‘most to gain’ from being connected to superfast broadband.

Ms Forbes said however her efforts have not been ‘fruitful’ and that the UK Government’s project gigabit scheme risks marginalising people and widening the digital exclusion gap.

She told the economy and fair work committee: “I have seen the UK Government’s gigabit project as the next opportunity for a more targeted investment working well alongside the R100 programme. There’s £5bn available for investment across the UK through the UK Government’s Project Gigabit, but as it stands the sort of investment that Scottish Government is making in subsea cables and so on will not be possible by Project Gigabit, which is instead to focus on the cheapest non commercial premises.

“Project Gigabit has an arbitrary cost cap of £7,000, in other words if it costs more than £7,000 to connect a premises anywhere in the UK then the UK Government won’t fund it. Now, I know that the committee would hopefully join me in appealing to the UK Government to express the point that to connect the hardest to reach areas in Scotland will inevitably cost more than £7,000 per property.”

Ms Forbes said her hands are therefore tied as the telecoms policy is currently reserved to Westminster, and she cannot carry on ‘picking up the tab’ through with its own separate £600m budget that funds the Reaching 100% (R100) programme.

“So, Project Gigabit looks like it’s going from a transformational opportunity to a missed opportunity for Scotland,” she added.

On R100, she updated the committee on its progress. As of April, the programme – divided into North, Central and South contract lots with the supplier, Openreach – has connected 7,685 properties to superfast broadband, with a further 2,200 reached through a broadband voucher scheme. She said she continues to put pressure on Openreach to roll out the connectivity programme ‘at pace’ and to identify any opportunities where R100 and Project Gigabit could intersect. The deadline for the programme to complete is 2026/27.

There have also been positive recent developments on laying subsea cables to connect 15 Scottish islands, with ships currently deployed in the North Sea with aims to complete that work by the end of the year. With mobile infrastructure, a target of adding 45 new tower masts to help communities in ‘notspot’ areas of the country also looks like being exceeding, with 55 being built within the £28.75m Scottish 4G Infill programme, work that is set to conclude by March 2023, figures that were supplied in the virtual meeting by Robbie McGhee, the Scottish Government’s deputy director for digital connectivity.

There were concerns however about the effectiveness of a broadband voucher scheme, raised by Alexander Burnett MSP, who observed that the take-up levels have been low. Ms Forbes said she didn’t have all the answers as to the ‘attractiveness’ of the scheme but the Scottish Government had extended it by three months and despite advertising in local, national and social media, she said that it is ‘demand-led’. She committed however to any unspent money being re-invested in digital connectivity.

Colin Beattie MSP raised a question about the commercial viability of next generation connectivity 5G testbeds that were being set up around the country by the Scottish Government. Ms Forbes said that £4m had been reserved to deliver the S5G Connect programme, overseen by the Scotland 5G Centre. She said the aim of them was to accelerate the adoption of the new technology and its potential economic contribution. However, she once again pointed to the fact that the issue was reserved to Westminster and Scotland’s programme has to ‘compliment’ work that is commercially-led or UK Government-led.