Fergus Ewing MSP has called for Scotland to received its’ fair share of UK broadband funding and demanded clarity from Westminster over what Scottish broadband consumers stand to receive from the Universal Service Obligation.
The Rural Economy and Connectivity Secretary has written to Matt Hancock, the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, saying it would be “grossly unfair” if Scotland was excluded from the government’s USO; which aims to deliver 10Mbps to 100 percent of premises.
The Scottish Government has recently said that it would receive no benefits from the programme after it was deemed Scottish premises were ‘ineligible’. This raises serious questions over the UK Government’s ambition on the USO programme and begs the question why is Scotland being left out?
Wires Crossed in Broadband Delivery
The UK Government’s USO programme appears to be in conflict with Scotland’s own £600 million plan to deploy 30Mbps+ broadband to nearly all homes in the nation. Currently, just over 93% of Scottish premises can already access a 30Mbps+ network – With the deployment largely supported by the existing £428 million Digital Scotland Project with BT Openreach.
This programme has been rolling out a mixture of broadband technologies, including Gigabit and 80Mbs super-fast broadband. Additionally, there are separate ongoing deployments from other service providers such as Virgin Media.
As the Digital Scotland programme enters its’ final phases, the Scottish Government has developed the R100 programme, which aims to make super-fast broadband networks available to 100% of the country by 2021. A number of suppliers, including BT, SSE and Gigaclear are known to be bidding for work on this project.
The Scottish Government seems to view the USO programme as an attempt to ‘shortchange’ Scots and leave them in the dark. The legally-binding 10Mbps USO does appear to conflict with their own non-binding R100 programme.
It must be pointed out, however, that the USO is essentially a legal backstop rather than a replacement for broadband coverage commitments.
For Fergus Ewing, this move by the UK Government highlights Westminster’s’ poor approach to broadband roll-out and will merely exclude Scotts from a programme that they have actively contributed to, stating:
“This USO will be funded by industry, who are in turn likely to pass on the costs to consumers across the UK. If excluded from the USO, people in Scotland would get nothing back despite contributing funding.
“This is grossly unfair … This is indicative of the UK government’s approach to broadband roll-out thus far, which has been to ignore the needs of Scotland, particularly our rural areas, and instead rely on an entirely industry-led model, which would leave large parts of rural Scotland completely disconnected.
Mr Ewing continued, saying that although the R100 programme would connect all Scottish premises, he would like to see collaboration that would allow the Scottish Government to “unlock significant savings” – Which he insists consumers have a right to.
“The collaboration we seek would allow us to unlock significant savings to which Scottish consumers have a right. I have therefore asked the secretary of state for digital for clarity about whether the UK government intends to collaborate and avoid cutting Scottish consumers out completely.”
A Lack of Ambition
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said that although the USO minimum speed will be set at a minimum of 10Mbps initially, this plan will be kept under review. The department also expects it to be increased over time.
The UK Government’s planned 10Mbps appears to be lacking in ambition compared to plans set out by the devolved government in Holyrood, and yesterday, the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster sought to address the concerns of the Scottish Government on the issue of the USO.
Speaking to the committee, Fergus Ewing said “UK ministers appeared to have decided that a 10Mbps universal service obligation is sufficient for rural Britain. We believe that is a grave mistake, and it is one that we are not prepare to stand by and just watch.”
Mr Ewing continued, saying “I do wholeheartedly agree with John Lamont, who is on the record as having said the UK Government should have been more ambitious and set the USO at a higher speed than just 10Mbps.
“I’m sure the committee will share that view and support the commitment we have made to ensure 100% super-fast access across Scotland.”
Mr Ewing also called on members of the committee to urge Westminster to “contribute more to the programme; better reflecting the fact that it is a reserved responsibility.”
Scottish Broadband Consumers Shortchanged?
Fergus Ewing highlighted areas in which cooperation between the Scottish Government and UK Government is essential.
His first point was on the issue of funding, saying “I do think the UK’s contribution of 3% is mean and Scotland is being shortchanged.”
For the Scottish public to not benefit from UK-wide programmes is unfair and sets dangerous precedents on how consumers are treated in different parts of the country.
He also highlighted he process of developing telecoms policy; suggesting it must be reformed. Mr Ewing went on to suggest that there should be a UK body involving the UK Government, devolved powers and independent regulators to ensure there is extensive dialogue between all parties involved. Misunderstanding and a lack of cooperation will only disrupt broadband roll-outs.
He pointed out that this was suggested two years ago and the offer is on the table, however nothing as of yet has come of this. In establishing this, Ewing suggested that greater clarity between government could be established, preventing further confusion and issues with eligibility.