Broadband Rollout – Stewart Nicol, Inverness Chamber of Commerce

Action not rhetoric will ensure broadband roll-out

ONE of the findings in the recent Ofcom publication, “Communications Market Report: Scotland” was of no great surprise to many of us.

Buried in the 136-page document was the news that broadband take-up in Scotland last year was lower than anywhere else in the UK. As if to add insult to injury, the statement concluded “.take-up remained level year on year”.

Ofcom’s report came hard on the heels of an equally challenging publication from Reform Scotland entitled, “Digital Power”. Reform Scotland pulls no punches in its assessment of how important the issue is for Scotland, particularly rural areas such as the Highlands and Islands. For me one of their key assertions is that, “there is no co-ordinated digital strategy or plan to ensure that large parts of Scotland do not suffer from no or very limited access to NGA (superfast broadband) capability.

If Scotland is to compete with other countries and with other regions of the UK, then in an increasingly digital world, we must move quickly to develop a plan to build a fibre network across large areas of Scotland with enhanced copper, wireless and, exceptionally, satellite at the edges of the networks. This will necessitate some public subsidy and choices to be made over how our public and private capital is deployed.”

Both documents highlight, as Inverness Chamber has long asserted, we need to move quickly, make appropriate choices and take decisive action regarding how we develop Highland’s broadband infrastructure.

Highlands and Island Enterprise (HIE) has to be congratulated on its recent focus on this critically important matter for the Highland business community. Its draft “Connectivity Roadmap” document clearly catalogues the breadth of the issues and also sets out a clear set of actions which will be required to address each issue. Although it remains work in progress given the recent changes in UK government policy, the roadmap succinctly captures the regional priorities around connectivity.

HIE has also been working closely with Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) over recent months. BDUK is the UK Government’s broadband delivery team, which has recently announced a trial to fund three NGA trials in rural locations across the UK. HIE has put together a compelling case for the location of one such trial in the Highlands.

In addition, HIE is finalising a further, much more ambitious project for BDUK’s consideration which will help establish a robust backbone of connectivity to many locations across the Highlands and Islands. The proposals cover key business centres and areas of economic growth opportunities. This potential project will, I believe, provide the basis of an infrastructure which will enable operators to further roll-out 3G and 4G mobile phone coverage, help community networks flourish and impact positively on the delivery of public services.

I used the recent visit of the Scottish Cabinet to Dornoch to again raise the matter of the apparent lack of priority being given to the issue of broadband capability and the consequent impact on Highland businesses. Unfortunately, I felt the subsequent response from the minister for enterprise, energy and tourism left a lot to be desired. His letter was liberally sprinkled with fine phrases such as “stakeholder groups”, “position statements”, “improving our evidence base” and “commissioning new research”. While all of these activities have their appropriate place, I feel that we need action not rhetoric.

We all have a part to play in ensuring an appropriate digital infrastructure is completed for the benefit of all Highland businesses and communities. Inverness Chamber of Commerce strongly endorses the recent progress HIE has been making. Politicians at a local, Scottish and UK level need to ensure they do their part in enabling these proposals to become a reality for the benefit of all.

Stewart Nicol, Chief Executive, Inverness Chamber of Commerce

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