19 December 2017
Labour members share the cabinet secretary’s ambition to reach 100 per cent of premises by 2021.
However, we are concerned that the Scottish Government will not achieve that target and that people will be let down.
It will take the Government at least a year to procure the next phase, so it will be some way into 2019 before a shovel goes into the ground, leaving only 18 months or two years for the most technically difficult areas of Scotland to be reached.
Estimates suggest that, for the Highlands and Islands alone, that could cost up to £300 million, which is half of the allocated budget.
Does the cabinet secretary realistically believe that he will achieve his goal? Given that he has more than halved the budget for next year, how much will be invested from gainsharing and added to the budget?
Will he also give an assurance that the availability of a voucher scheme will not be seen as discharging the obligation to reach hard-to-reach areas by 2021?
Fergus Ewing: We delivered on the DSSB project. As I am sure would be seen if we were to look back through the Official Report from three years ago, Opposition members challenged us then on whether we would deliver that ambitious project and whether we would enable access to over 800,000 homes and businesses in a matter of simply three years.
Well, we have done that, so I am optimistic. Of course, there is lots of hard work to be done. The tender process involves competitive dialogue to ensure the maximum likelihood of competitive bids.
I take heart from Ofcom’s encouraging most recent report, which was published last week. At paragraph 1.7, it states:
“We recognise there have been significant improvements in mobile and broadband connectivity in recent years.”
At paragraph 3.20, it goes on to say:
“Local authorities in the Highlands and Islands ... have seen some of the largest increases in superfast broadband availability in the UK.”
I could read out much more. The independent regulator recognises that we have done a good job. There is therefore no reason, at this early stage, to question whether we will be able to achieve our aim and what we have achieved already with DSSB.
I am acutely conscious of the fact that people who do not have such access at the moment will feel bitterly disappointed and, in many cases, angry. I understand that. It is, therefore, important that we have a credible plan that will devote substantial resources, the lion’s share of which will be devoted to the northern regional block including the Highlands and Islands. I am determined that we shall deliver, working with our local authority colleagues to whom I have sent an invitation to meet fairly early next year to discuss how we will proceed. I do not share the member’s pessimism.