Row over Scottish Government’s broadband coverage claim

A row is brewing over Scotland's broadband.
A row is brewing over Scotland's broadband.
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The Scottish Government claims it has met a key target to provide 95 per coverage in Scotland of state-of-the-art fibre broadband.

Writing in The Scotsman today, Economy Secretary Keith Brown revealed the government had achieved its ambition to deliver fibre broadband access to 95 per cent of homes and premises by the end of last year.

But the assertion last night sparked a heated political row, with the UK government claiming the Scottish target was meaningless and that speed was the important factor, not the way broadband was delivered.

Mr Brown will be hopeful that announcing the target has been met will answer critics, who have argued ministers have not been doing enough to ensure rural communities have top-class internet access.

But Mr Brown’s claim ­Scotland had “progressed faster in extending superfast broadband access than any other UK nation” was undermined by UK government digital secretary Matt Hancock. Last night Mr Hancock pointed out Scotland was still lagging behind England and Wales when it came to broadband speed.

In an article for today’s The Scotsman, Mr Brown wrote: “The latest coverage figures are currently being assured, but we shortly expect to be able to confirm that our Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme achieved its target of extending fibre broadband access to 95 per cent of homes and premises by the end of 2017.”

The broadband target set by Scottish ministers differs from that set by the UK government. In Scotland, the 2017 target was for 95 per cent “fibre broadband access” as opposed to the equivalent UK government’s target of 95 per cent “superfast coverage”.

Superfast is defined as broadband speeds of more than 24 megabits per second whereas fibre broadband is the mechanism that delivers the internet.

Fibre broadband is the most advanced system, but it does not necessarily always deliver superfast speeds.

The Scottish Government has an ambitious target to make sure all home and businesses across Scotland can access superfast broadband by the end of 2021.

Thinkbroadband – the independent broadband information site – has Scotland at 93.1 per cent coverage when it comes to superfast speeds of more than 24 megabits per second. That is behind Wales on 93.7 per cent and England on 95.2 per cent.

Mr Hancock said: “The sad fact is the Scottish Government are missing the goal of achieving 95 per cent superfast broadband coverage. They are lagging behind England and Wales and they need to up their game.”

Broadband expert Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst for cable.co.uk, explained 95 per cent access to fibre did not necessarily mean achieving 95 per cent superfast broadband speeds.

He said: “The fibre target refers to the actual fibre optic cabling and the way the internet is delivered to cabinets which are located around the country. Theoretically if you have fibre connectivity you should be getting superfast speeds. But the reality is that broadband speed drops the further away you live from the cabinet. Broadband slows once you are 1,000m from the cabinet.

“Therefore people may have fibre available, but they can’t get superfast speeds.”

The Scottish and UK governments have been at loggerheads over broadband coverage for some time. At the end of last year, Mr Hancock clashed with Fergus Ewing when the Scottish Rural Economy ­minister said Scotland had experienced the largest increase in coverage over the past year of the four home nations and some of the country’s most remote areas had benefited most.

Although superfast broadband is reserved to Westminster, the devolved administrations have responsibility for the roll-out in areas where providers such as BT and Virgin are unwilling to provide it on a commercial basis.

Last night business leaders welcomed the Scottish target being hit, but called on the UK and Scottish ministers to work together.

Stuart Mackinnon, from the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland, said: “From a business point of view it is incredibly important that governments work together to address any shortfalls. Competing programmes are difficult to communicate and risk increasing overall costs.”