OIC Leader ‘Frustrated’ At Digital Connectivity

James Stockan, Leader of Orkney Islands Council, has voiced his frustration at digital connectivity in the islands and has criticised the Scottish Government on what he says will be delays to deliver the programme in 2021..

The provision of Broadband is a reserved issue to the UK Government.

The power to legislate for telecommunications (including wireless telegraphy and internet services) is reserved to the UK Government.

However, the practical delivery of broadband roll-out is led by local bodies in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This means that the local bodies in England and the devolved Administrations can develop their own broadband strategies to guide the infrastructure build in their region, and set roll-out targets that are more ambitious than those set at the UK Government level. House of Commons Library

Last year the £600 million Reaching 100% programme announced that the £384 million contract for the North of Scotland had been signed with BT, allowing work to move to the next stage. The contract will also involve the laying of 16 new subsea cables, ensuring future-proofed, resilient connections in all island local authorities.

James Stockan said:

“Given the challenges of living and working in a rural area, delivering improved connectivity across Orkney is already a high priority for the Council, to mitigate against the effects of distance and isolation, to allow businesses and the public sector to modernise, and to deliver improved quality of living including improved opportunities for remote education, learning and employment for residents.

“In December 2020, that BT signed a ‘North Lot’ contract for the Scottish Government’s R100 broadband programme, pledging to deliver superfast broadband to 100 per cent of premises in 2021 – however, given the ongoing pandemic this is likely to be delayed further and regrettably it is expected that this contract will still not provide appropriate broadband access for areas of Orkney. The Council have pressed the Scottish Government seeking an ‘outside in’ approach – whereby areas with the poorest connectivity are prioritised within the R100 programme.”

The Reaching 100% (R100) programme is a commitment to provide access to superfast broadband of 30 Megabits per second (Mbps) to every home and business in Scotland.The Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme was set up to provide funding of up to £5,000 to help homes and businesses not in scope of either Reaching 100% (R100) contracts or planned commercial investment to obtain superfast broadband where providers may not ordinarily go.

James Stockan continued:

“We have also urged the Scottish Government seeking to ensure that voucher schemes are island proofed to ensure residents with poor connectivity can access and local Internet service providers can deliver improved services.

“Our Education Service has provided devices, including iPads and Chromebooks, top up credit for those with 4G connectivity and advice to parents to optimise connectivity within their homes. We are proactively seeking sustainable solutions to improve connectivity in Orkney.

“Orkney faces some of the most challenging connectivity issues in the UK. It is vital that the Scottish Government level the playing field so that our communities, our children and young people, and our businesses, are not left behind in a world that increasingly depends on the most modern mobile and wireless networks.”

Orkney Islands Council state that it has received from the Scottish Government:

  • £142,000 to address digital disadvantage
  • this included £54,000 set aside to address the connectivity challenge
  • The Education Service has purchased 145 Chromebooks and 130 iPads
  • Connecting Scotland Scheme provided 20 Chromebooks and 100 iPads
  • Orkney will also receive a share of £45M to support schools through the pandemic

James Stockan continued:

“As previously mentioned, we have received £54,000 of Scottish Government funding to be used for digital connectivity. At least £33,000 of this is set aside for connectivity devices and data packages and we hope to convince Scottish Government to allow us to use the entire amount for this purpose.

“Providing connectivity solutions is far more complex than providing devices. The default solution promoted by Scottish Government is to provide, where necessary, a Vodafone MiFi device. Unfortunately, Vodafone is not a viable solution for many Orkney families due to issues surrounding a lack of signal, so we must be more creative.

“We continue to explore any available options open to us to improve on this situation, however, the challenges faced by Orkney are largely infrastructure related and require significant investment by the Government to fulfil their connectivity commitments.”

According to the Digital Scotland website the programme is on track:

Over 95% of premises in Scotland can now benefit from faster speeds, supporting businesses, healthcare and learning and connecting families, friends and communities. Without DSSB only around 66%, and in some areas less than 30%, of premises would have had fibre access.

Connectivity Minister in the Scottish Government Paul Wheelhouse said:

“Scotland has some of the most challenging locations anywhere in Europe for providing telecoms infrastructure and we are taking additional steps to provide superfast access to some of the hardest-to-reach areas.

“More than 80% of the build we are funding will provide full fibre to the premises and speeds of up to one Gigabit per second.

“Complex engineering work to lay 16 new subsea cables will provide resilient connections for our most remote communities and download speeds equal to that experienced in our most urban areas.

“We have also developed plans, in parallel with main infrastructure investment, to ensure our 100% superfast commitment is met with our Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme. This will ensure that everyone can access and benefit from this world-leading digital capability.” 

The Scottish Government’s Infrastructure Investment Plan (IIP) and Capital Spending Review, both published on 4th of February have confirmed a five year plan of investment which includes “significant investment to strengthen connectivity across Scotland with £600 million for the R100 programme”.

Additionally there will be:

  • £30 million in delivering the National Islands Plan
  • over £6 million to Highlands and Islands Enterprise to deliver the Green Jobs Fund
  • improvements to piers and harbours and support ferry services to and from Scotland’s islands.

Welcome Budget News For Ferries in Orkney

More on the Budget here : Scottish Draft Budget: The Main Points

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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