Extending broadband coverage to rural Scotland “a challenge”, says Audit Scotland
Network cables - image credit: Andreas Franke/DPA/Press Association Images
The Scottish Government will find it a challenge to extend high-speed broadband to rural parts of Scotland, a new report by Audit Scotland has suggested.
Although the report found that good progress is being made in the rollout of superfast broadband across Scotland, the public sector auditor predicted that further expansion will be harder going forward, with only difficult-to-reach rural areas left.
The Scottish Government has an aim of everyone in Scotland being able to access the internet at any time on any device by 2020.
As a means of achieving that, in 2013 it appointed BT to extend Scotland’s existing broadband network, with a target of 95 per cent of Scotland having access to fibre broadband by 2017.
In a progress report published today, Audit Scotland says that 2.2 million of Scotland’s 2.6 million homes and businesses, 86 per cent of premises, had access to fibre broadband by March 2016 – one per cent more than the Scottish Government’s interim target of 85 per cent.
If BT continues to meet its targets, Audit Scotland predicts the Scottish Government can expect to succeed in its aim of 95 per cent coverage by December 2017.
But the national auditor warns there will be major challenges ahead, with the work so far having focused on easier to reach areas.
Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme celebrates two-year anniversary
First Minister launches rural broadband scheme
Vital areas of Scotland missing out on faster broadband, according to RICS
This can be seen from the breakdown of figures in the audit report, where there is considerable variation between local authority areas, with rural areas having poorer connectivity on average than urban ones.
While BT’s contractual targets for fibre broadband coverage have been met in 26 of Scotland’s 32 council areas, Perth and Kinross, Highland, Argyll and Bute, Orkney, Shetland all fall below the required 75 per cent connectivity.
In the Western Isles, which has a lower target of 70 per cent coverage due to terrain and remoteness, just 40 per cent of premises currently have access to fibre broadband.
The rural and remote areas still to be connected are likely to need more complicated and expensive engineering solutions to offer them a good broadband connection.
There is also a great degree of variation in average broadband speeds across the country.
While 87 per cent of premises covered by the BT rollout contract have average connection speeds of 24Mbs, 10 per cent above the target of 77 per cent, average broadband speeds across all types of connection, both those covered by this contact and commercial rollouts, fall below 24Mbs in two-thirds of council areas.
Twenty-one of the 32 local authority areas, including Glasgow, Aberdeen and all rural local authorities, have average connection speeds of under 24Mbs, with only the rest of the central belt and Dundee getting average speeds above that.
According to Ofcom, 14 per cent of Scotland currently cannot yet receive a speed of 10Mbs, which is the minimum requirement that Ofcom has set out as a universal service obligation for broadband providers to offer all customers in the UK by 2020.
In Orkney and Shetland around 45 per cent of homes and businesses cannot access 10Mbs broadband, while in the Western Isles it is close to 55 per cent.
Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, said: “Fast, reliable internet access is increasingly essential for everyday life, so it’s encouraging to see good progress being made in rolling out fibre broadband.
“However, there is a lot still to be done by the Scottish Government if it is to achieve its vision of a world class digital infrastructure, particularly in improving download speeds in rural areas.
“It’s important that it continues to monitor the cost and progress of broadband rollout so that these communities aren’t excluded”.
The total investment from the Scottish Government and Highlands and Islands Enterprise has been £156m up to March 2016 and the total cost of the whole initiative will be £413m.
There is also an additional £42m of funding, which the Scottish Government will use for extending broadband coverage to the five per cent outside of the contracts.
Rural Economy and Connectivity Secretary Fergus Ewing has promised to lay out plans later this year for 100 per cent connectivity across Scotland by 2021.
Commenting on the report, he said: “Broadband and mobile coverage are of vital importance to many aspects of rural life and the rural economy and we are working hard to continue to improve both.
“With this in mind, I welcome today’s Audit Scotland report, which outlines the good progress we are making in widening the access to high-speed broadband and confirms that 86 per cent of premises across Scotland now have access to fibre broadband – one per cent more than our original target.
“However, we also recognise that there is much more we can do at a Scotland level to extend coverage, particularly to rural areas.
“That is why we have made the commitment that 100 per cent of properties across Scotland will be able to access superfast broadband by 2021 and I will outline next steps later this year.”
The Scottish Greens, though, have expressed scepticism about the Scottish Government achieving its targets for high-speed broadband access within the next four years.
The party’s rural and island communities spokesperson, John Finnie, said: “All political parties will acknowledge the scale of the task in tackling the barriers to broadband access in Scotland.
“However the 2020 target of having everyone in Scotland being able to access the internet at any time and on any device looks unrealistic and not well planned out.
"Vast areas of Scotland such as the Highlands and islands, Borders and Dumfries and Galloway still do not have reliable access to broadband.
“In many areas the rollout, still dominated by BT, is just not moving fast enough, highlighting the need for resources to be made available for community broadband providers.”