Progress is being made towards this objective with three initiatives in place, however it is the final 5 per cent of coverage that will prove difficult. Superfast broadband speeds should be the minimum target for most rural areas in line with the rest of the country. This was echoed by the recent First Minister’s commitment for universal superfast broadband by the end of the next parliament.
Scotland has unique issues with a difficult geography and dispersed population. These issues can only be overcome successfully by building on current initiatives and refining a cohesive strategy nationwide to strengthen collaboration between private investors, suppliers, councils and government agencies.
Currently, people living in rural areas are encouraged to use the internet to conduct business, complete tax returns and even boost social inclusion, but these people don’t always have a reliable connection. Digital exclusion is a key issue in rural areas and can even lead to residents and businesses relocating towards better-connected urban centres. Connecting the final 5 per cent of Scotland will be costly and difficult, but in the long-term this will not only help us achieve our connectivity goals but the government and suppliers will gain financial benefits with further contributions to the Scottish economy.
In August, BT announced take up for superfast broadband across the UK was likely to exceed the forecast level of 20 per cent, making it more profitable than first thought and highlighting the eagerness of remote residents to be more connected. Take up in rural areas has proven popular, thanks to the higher speeds available.
Current initiatives to provide better coverage are progressing, however it is difficult to forecast how far they will go. There is a need for an overall strategy to optimise the outcomes of these programmes as well as future initiatives, and achieve greater results.
A potential issue is the shortage of suppliers willing to deliver next generation broadband to these areas due to the difficulty of identifying clear profit margins. Access to affordable infrastructure and wholesale services is even more important in remote areas to enable investments by private suppliers, whether in broadband or in mobile infrastructure. To achieve this, private investors need to be encouraged by gaining access to affordable infrastructure and wholesale services.
It is vital we keep people in rural communities connected and support their everyday lives with the technology city residents take for granted. By encouraging more collaboration and private investment, we can hope to meet the challenging objective of universal superfast broadband coverage by 2020.
• Jean-Donan Olliero is principal consultant at technology and telecoms consultancy FarrPoint