Sharon White: Broadband won’t leave Scots behind

Remote mobile phone users can look forward to improved reception

Remote mobile phone users can look forward to improved reception

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SCOTLAND has a proud history of being at the forefront of technical advances, from the bicycle to penicillin.

Nowhere has that contribution been stronger than in the field of communications, where Bell introduced Victorians to the telephone, and Logie Baird brought the wonders of television to pre-war Britain.

So it’s fitting that, in 2015, Scotland has the highest usage of modern mobile and catch-up TV services anywhere in the UK. A third of Scots now use 4G, and almost two-thirds watch TV and films on demand.

Those are just two examples of how good mobile and broadband services have become intrinsic to our everyday personal and working lives. That’s especially true at Christmas, when people rely on good broadband for things like online shopping, catch-up TV and video calls to friends and family.

At Ofcom, we’re working to support industry and government in making better broadband and mobile services available to everyone. So I’m pleased that, according to our new Connected Nations report, Scotland has seen a big rise in superfast broadband coverage over the last year – from 61% to 73% of premises.

That increase has benefited rural areas in particular, where coverage is now 31%. It has been driven partly by the rollout of the Digital Scotland programme, supported by UK Government and led by the Scottish Government with their other funding partners, including the Scottish local authorities and BT.

The next challenge is to provide fast connections for everyone, including those in remote areas such as the Highlands and Islands. Doing so will open up new opportunities – not just for users at home, but equally for remote businesses wishing to communicate with customers without having to relocate.

Tourism can benefit too, if visitors exploring the country can phone home and upload pictures on the spot more easily.

When Ofcom’s Scotland team and I met stakeholders in Edinburgh recently, we heard clear concerns that communications access must be improved for those on the wrong side of the “digital divide”.

Public funding will help, so Ofcom is working with the UK Government on its plans for every home to have a legal right to fast, 10 Mbit/s broadband by 2020. That can make a big difference, because our report shows that 14% of Scottish homes can’t get those speeds now, rising to 57% in rural areas – the highest proportions in the UK.

I’m excited by regional projects like GigaPlus Argyll, where eight island and mainland communities on the west coast of Scotland are working with Community Broadband Scotland to establish a wireless broadband network across Argyll and the Isles.

The project aims to increase speeds from less than 2 Mbit/s to as high as 50 Mbit/s in some of the hardest to reach areas on Colonsay, Mull, Iona, Jura, Lismore, Islay, Luing and the peninsula of Craignish.

More broadly, we can take steps now to improve things across Scotland. Ofcom estimates that a poor wireless signal could be holding back broadband performance in almost half a million premises across Scotland. So this week we launched a new app for tablets and smartphones that lets people find out if their wi-fi signal is working as it should. We’re also working to improve mobile coverage. I’m concerned that a fifth of Scottish homes and businesses can’t get a 3G signal. So when it comes to 4G, the new generation of faster mobile internet services, Ofcom has put in place rules to ensure that 95% of Scottish premises must get a 4G signal by 2017.

On our website, you can visit an interactive map of Scotland to compare mobile coverage from all the providers at any location (www.ofcom.org.uk/mobile-coverage). We want tools like that to put consumers in the driving seat, and encourage operators to improve their performance.

We’ve seen tremendous progress in Scotland’s telecoms networks over the last year. Our challenge now is to maintain that pace of change so that consumers and businesses get the best networks and services they deserve. «

Sharon White is chief executive of Ofcom

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