Report on meeting with Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband from Scottish Rural Action
Scottish Rural Action – John Hutchison (Chair), Amanda Burgauer (Director), Emma Cooper (National Coordinator)
BT – Liz Mallinson (Business Development Director, Next Generation Access Scotland), Mark Dames (Head of Policy & Public Affairs, BT Scotland)
Highlands & Islands Enterprise – Stuart Robertson (Head of Digital and Broadband)
Scottish Government – Jane Morgan (Deputy Director Digital directorate), Sara Budge (senior Policy Manager – Digital participation), Trudi Nicolson (Head of Broadband Policy), Clive Downing (Consultant)
Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband – Duncan Nisbet (Senior Stakeholder Manager), Fiona Smith (Head of Communication)
The meeting held on Monday 27th July and discussions since that meeting have provided us with some additional clarity on the modelling work to be carried out as announced last week.
To help decide the future broadband development programme, the Scottish Government has asked BT to carry out some modelling on where superfast broadband could reach with further investment. BT have not been awarded additional funds to do the modelling work. The modelling will determine what impact further investment could have on the roll-out of superfast broadband in rural areas i.e. with more money, how many more premises can BT reach? The investment of £42m, if awarded, would be in addition to the current contracts which BT holds to deliver the superfast broadband infrastructure.
An additional contract will only be awarded to BT if the modelling demonstrates that this approach delivers against the objectives set by Scottish Government and HIE. If it doesn’t, then a different approach will be taken to investing that money and delivering superfast broadband to rural communities. The objectives include ensuring all local authority areas have a similar percentage of premises able to access superfast broadband. Either way, rural communities are will achieve the benefit of an additional £42m to delivering superfast broadband.
Is this good news for rural communities?
It is clear that more investment is needed to deliver superfast broadband to more premises. The current contracts BT holds only extend so far, and more isolated, challenging to reach and remote rural communities won’t get superfast broadband under these contracts. If a good number of rural communities will receive superfast broadband with the additional investment, then many people will see this as a definite benefit.
Others would argue that rural communities should be able to develop their own solutions and that doing so successfully can bring additional benefits to those communities. This is certainly the case in some parts of rural Scotland but we should recognise too that community-led schemes can be both challenging and time-consuming for volunteers. We asked the Scottish Government to take into account that in areas where the BT contract has already (or will under current contracts) delivered superfast broadband to the majority of the population, it is hard to create a financially viable scheme with the remaining outlying properties.
The Scottish Government team noted that, whether or not a further contract is awarded, the modelling exercise will draw a line around the BT roll-out of superfast broadband and allow rural communities to move forward with alternatives if needed. That certainly is good news.
Will we find our sooner if we are to receive superfast broadband?
The detailed modelling results won’t be made public but Scottish Government will be able to indicate areas that will not be reached so that Community Broadband Scotland and communities can work together.
It is expected that the modelling results will be available in autumn this year, but as the decision to award a further contract or not will be made early next year it isn’t until then that CBS can start acting on the modelling results.
If however you are still in a grey area – that is they won’t know if they can reach you or not until they do survey work on the ground in your vicinity – then this is not relevant.
What else was discussed at the meeting? / Did they answer any of our other concerns?
We raised the issue of dates for superfast broadband being pushed back in some areas. We were reassured to hear that sometimes dates are pushed forward too and for example, all three island groups (not individual islands) have some service ahead of schedule. One of the BT representatives assured us they are “very committed” to seeing as many premises reached as quickly as possible. We were assured that the current contract is ahead of schedule and fully utilising the maximum resources available.
The delays, we were informed, are due to technical issues. Detailed plans on how to get superfast broadband to communities take around 9 months to draw up, but even then there can be surprises or delays with obtaining planning consent from the local authority. It seems that there is little traction for us to make progress here and to some extent we need to accept that the process sometimes takes longer than anticipated.
We talked a lot about the need for open communication and the DSSB team made notes on your key concerns. It was accepted that the current website information could be regarded as misleading since it gave the impression that an answer could be obtained for individual lines whereas in reality the answer relates to the enquirer’s exchange area. This information is not actually available until the technical work has been done and premises are able to request connection to superfast broadband. We have been assured that these communication concerns will be taken into account as a new website is developed. We will be forwarding your full comments on that subject to ensure that they have as much information as we do about how best to help. It was agreed that Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband would ask us to comment on the wording of the new website, with a view to making it more jargon-free.
It also became clear that a lot simply isn’t yet known about where broadband will reach at a detailed level that communities would benefit from. The modelling is the quickest way to speed up this process, although it still won’t be able to distinguish one household from another. What it will do is tell some communities and premises that they are definitely excluded from the BT roll-out which is good progress and it will tell others whether they can get connected down to a postcode level. Whether there are opportunities for more information to become available earlier remains a bit woolly, but we were assured that further consideration would be given to this and look forward to hearing more.