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Public broadband funding could 'exacerbate' digital divide

Friday, October 17th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

The investment of public money in superfast broadband could exacerbate the digital divide rather than narrowing it, a Scottish politician has said.

Tavish Scott, MSP for the Shetlands told Cable.co.uk that despite the trumpeted arrival of fibre-based broadband to the islands, many rural and island communities still had not been given a date for improvements.

He told us, "The investment of public money in superfast broadband, far from narrowing the digital divide, may only serve to exacerbate it.

"Many rural and island communities have not yet been given a date as to when any improvements will take place.

"Worse still, there are households and businesses in very isolated parts of the country with no broadband service at all.

"So I have long argued that the public sector investment should be aimed not at the low hanging digital fruit of towns and cities but instead at the hardest to reach areas."

Shetland became the first Scottish island to benefit from the rollout of fibre broadband, bringing it to more than 4,000 businesses and homes in Lerwick, Quarff and Sumburgh.

The move is part of the creation of a £146million publicly-funded fibre network across the Highlands and Islands as part of the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme.

The partnership programme is being delivered by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) with BT, with funding coming from the Scottish Government, HIE, BT and Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).

Carroll Buxton, director of regional development for HIE, said without the project, Shetland would never have received commercial broadband services.

She told us, “It opens up lots of new opportunities. We have got numbers of small business that are now able to operate online.

“The rollout of broadband goes give these small businesses the opportunity to get online, to trade online, to make themselves more effectively and also network better.

“It does have the potential to be transformational."

Mrs Buxton said the move was just the first step, and they would be looking at ways to push it further and to harder-to-reach areas.

She said, “The geography in the Highlands and Islands is incredibly challenging, both in terms of the number of islands we have but also the terrain that it has to go across.

“We also have a very large number of small and dispersed communities.

“What we need to focus on here is that in the Highlands and Islands as a whole commercial rollout of superfast broadband would have touched 21% of premises.

“With this project and the public sector intervention that figure in this phase is being increased to 84% which is a huge leap.

“We all agree that that’s not where we stop, this is the starting point, the first step.”

She said the project was unique, and probably one of the “most-challenging” that BT has ever tackled, especially with the amount and lengths of cable that were being put in, including 800km of on-land fibre, 400km of subsea fibre, and 20 subsea crossings.

She added, “The bottom line is the UK government, the Scottish government and here in the Highlands and Islands we have made a commitment to try to get to 100% rollout by the year 2020.

“We will strive to get there quicker if we can but there are constraints of resource both time and technical.”

The next phase of work in Shetland is expected to start in the second half of 2015.

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