Note of the Cross Party Group in the Scottish Parliament on Digital Participation held on 14 December 2011
The meeting was convened by Willie Coffey and Fiona MacLeod MSP was also in attendance.
WC invited Brendan Dick of BT Scotland as sponsors of the meeting to talk about their major announcement. BD relayed the news of investment to bring superfast broadband to 34 further exchanges in Scotland, mostly in city areas. The build will be through 2012 and will see 685 000 premises connected.
Duncan Nesbit of South of Scotland Alliance was invited to give his presentation. DN talked about the need for the project. The South of Scotland has suffered from poor connectivity in the past due to its rurality and issues with line lengths. There was recognition that the demand for bandwidth has doubled every 2 years and that something had to be done to ensure supply in the area. Take up is also an objective of the project, the current level is 61% which is below the UK average and there is a desire to address this.There are 20 000 lines in the region incapable of supporting speeds of 2 Mbit/s. Mobile broadband over 4G services could address but the issues with the costs of infrastructure build are the same as for any other technology rollout in rural areas.
Innerleithen had won the Race to Infinity project whereby superfast will be deployed in a region not normally considered suitable for commercial investment. This will provide an excellent showcase for what the technology can do for rural communities and hopefully drive demand elsewhere.
The focus of SoSA will be on the infrastructure layer of the network with the aim of creating an open access platform. £400 million will be required for both projects in the South of Scotland and in the Highlands and Islands. The key challenge is funding.
DN took questions from the floor. A member asked about the implications for education and training and new ways of delivering public services. Within the South all schools are connected by Pathfinder but schools are the key driver to get bandwidth into rural areas. Consumers can’t currently get into that Pathfinder network but in the future schools could become points of presence where services could spring from.
Another member asked about managing different active networks such as health and education on the same infrastructure and if there were any issues there. DN responded that they were challenging suppliers to come up with the technologies. Security of data was clearly a concern but all data ultimately ends up in the same national backhaul system anyway. It’s a technical issue but not difficult, examples already exist.
A member asked what technologies the infrastructure costs are based on? DN replied that the project was technology neutral but they had clearly done some indicative design based on fibre, satellite and wireless. Another member suggested subsea cabling as a solution and thought that there was a workable model that could repay the investment costs over just 2 years. It was acknowledged that there were lots of different models, the Digital Scotland report had looked at subsea cabling but there did not appear to be an appetite to reduce Crown Estate charges to facilitate this. There was also an option of satellite driven by solar power which has next generation capability not yet exploited. This was also acknowledged as a model but a member pointed out that Eigg has trialled it and change because of issues with latency and video.
WC thanked DN for his presentation and welcomed Annie McGovern of Consumer Focus Scotland to take the floor.
Their report on digital communications, Scotland’s Digital Needs, looked to gauge how effective the market in Scotland is utilising the key consumer principles. Scotland appears not to be working as effectively as the rest of the UK. There were a number of key recommendations including clearer information on what the Scottish Government’s targets are and providing ‘exceptions criteria’ so consumers have a better understanding of why there are problems in their area.
70% of refusers have no interest and it is thought that one of the key drivers for demand will be the use of technology for delivery of public services.The key input going forward should be from consumers and involvement of consumers in the decision making process.
WC thanked AM for her presentation and questioned the basis of the estimated £560 worth of savings to households from going online. He was concerned that the areas that need it most are not able to access it. He was pleased to see some movement on the Glasgow issue as it had come up several times at CPG. It was felt that Glasgow cannot be that different to other areas with similar socioeconomic profiles. It was also thought that fixed line and PC ownership are not the only measures as mobile devices and handheld devices become more predominant. The CPG discussed the differences in consumer representation from when the telecoms network was a public sector monopoly. A member suggested a role for public sector employers who tend to restrict use of technology with their employees. Employees are also consumers and can become ambassadors. Another member mentioned a similar situation in schools and that children can have a limited experience in schools and often have to complete tasks at home. They too have the potential to be ambassadors. Some types of services are blocked in schools for entirely valid reasons however this also has the side effect of blocking useful portals to the real world like vide conferencing. A cultural change is required to treat people as responsible, many companies have managed this process with little detrimental effect. Another member mentioned that Fife Council had successfully managed a more open policy. Blocking policies have largely become redundant with the advent of smartphones.
WC thanked AM for her presentation and welcomed Karen O Hanlon from the Scottish Government.
Karen O’Hanlon gave a presentation on the government’s e-health strategy the various strands of which brought benefits in terms of integration across different healthcare services, financial savings and benefits to patients (eg. On-line access for them to test results, immediate access in Emergency Care to patient medication records). Karen stressed that the IT systems were a small component of the changes required – training and cultural change were vital too. It was recognised that not everyone has access to broadband and other portals such as the new NHS TV channel and phone access were important. The ambition was to create an on-line citizen accounts through which people could access websites relevant to their condition, their test results, e-health records, book appointment or repeat prescriptions. The e-health team were currently conducting an on-line survey, which so far had ascertained that 93% of people wanted to do things electronically although only 19% at present were able to do so. Top things people wanted to do were book appointments on-line, request repeat prescriptions, and see test results. Top websites used by people for health information were BBC/health, NHS England, Netdoctor, Patient.co.uk and Wikipedia.
Questions/discussion included (i) whether NHS Boards would be required to introduce e-heath systems – KOH said that all Boards had to deliver on the commitments in the strategy by 2017, developing incrementally. (ii) the benefits foir patients of being able to book an appointment on-line – eg a Skype one, and then go in to see the GP in person if required. (iii) the benefits of ensuring legitimate health information websites were optimised in search engines (iv) whether e-health information systems might threaten traditional health service roles eg GP practice managers – KOH noted that health boards were given additional funding to implement e-health systems but that it was intended that GPs would have to change working practices – it wasn’t just about the technology. (v) Consumer Focus commended the use of the e-health survey but said that thought needed to be given about the needs of those who didn’t have access to the technology to participate – KOH said that yes, they recognised the need to plug the gaps in their survey of the people who weren’t able to input on-line (vi) whether access to DirectScot could provide links to the more legitimate health websites
Elaine Fulton gave a presentation on the role of the Scottish library network in digital participation. She advised that SLIC acted as an advisory body to Government and to its members. Scotland’s library network was extensive and there had been a 3% growth in library use in the last year, compared to England where use had dropped. At one time, most libraries offered 2Mbit/s links but some now had 10 and some 100Mbit/s. Typical barriers to use reported by people included fear of the technology, questions about the relevance of on-line content and lack of skills. Illiteracy rates of 20% in some communities was a particular barrier. EF reported interested from Job Centres in wanting libraries to help skill people to get on-line and from HMRC who wanted libraries to help small business owners learn the skills needed to file their VAT returns on-line. The ‘First Click’ campaign was launched in October 2010 and resulted in a 19% increase in demand for classes. 4,000 people signed up for some form of class and the fact that everyone who signed up was given a certificate helped build confidence. EF gave details of 2 specific schemes in Ardrossan and Aberdeen which both had a particular focus on local history, as well as the Stirling Homebound service which had used a laptop to show people the sorts of books available in libraries for lending – which had led some people to buy their own laptop, with one person subsequently setting up and running the local Bookclub Wiki site. There are 3 levels of engagement with libraries – (i) access to free content which libraries create (local information) (ii) national services such as Scan and Scran – which may require subscriptions. EF referred to the website ‘Scotland’s people’ which provided people with free vouchers to encourage access – as a loss leader – through which people gained the learning required to go on-line (iii) sites such as Encyclopedia Britannica – paid for content but for which Scotland has no aggregated use model – although it was noted that if people have a library card they can access EB from home.
Questions/discussion included (i) whether people might be incentivised to go on-line by eg. Discounts on their council tax if they pay on-line, (ii) noted that Kindles were available from some libraries although they were expensive and there was a problem of interoperability (iii) whether other community based locations eg community centres, pubs etc might provide connectivity (noted previous trials here – Public Internet Access Points – needed library support) (iv) whether people could use self-issue book systems in libraries – (v) library staff were there to support people using technology and not be replaced by it. (vi) How libraries can be integrated with1stop shops for council services as part of councils’ asset management strategies
WC thanked all presenters for their contributions and indicated that the next meeting would be late February/March 2012.