Note of the meeting of the Cross Party Group in the Scottish Parliament on Digital Participation – 25 January 2011, 1730-1930
Convener Willie Coffey welcomed members to the meeting and thanked Stewart Nicol and Inverness Chamber of Commerce for their kind support for the meeting.
It was highlighted that Martha Lane Fox, the UK Champion for Digital Inclusion had been in Scotland that day to meet the Minister Fiona Hyslop and to carry out an engagement at Adam Smith College in Fife. He asked Richard Wilkins (present) if he would give the CPG a short update on the Ministerial meeting.
Willie then welcomed Ian Shanks of BT Scotland to give his presentation on broadband and superfast broadband (SFBB).
IS began by pointing out that BT is one of a variety of communications providers. Scotland benefits from 99%+ coverage of ADSL broadband with infill provided by the Scottish Government/ Avanti Connected Communities project. Consumers of telecoms have seen a reduction in retail prices in comparison with other utilities over the last 20 years. Some of this is due to a highly developed and competitive market in the UK.
In terms of future infrastructure build out it is widely acknowledged that rolling out SFBB to the first two thirds of the UK population is economically viable with pubic support required to reach the so called ‘final third’.
Scotland will see 191 exchanges enabled by Spring 2011 offering 56% population coverage versus a UK figure of 75%. Broadband UK (BD UK) have now selected 4 pilot areas for superfast broadband, one of which is the Highlands and Islands area in partnership with Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Another rollout enabler is the access granted to BT’s Duct and Pole network although this comes along with high investment costs to new communications providers which could prove to be a barrier.
IS then opened the floor to questions. WC asked what the term ‘Superfast Broadband’ actually meant. IS said that it covered products that offer higher download speeds – up to 40 Mb. Most people don’t need so much bandwidth, for example watching TV over the internet will only use around 2 Mb but greater bandwidth is useful for households with multiple users doing different things. Up to 20 Mb can be done over the existing copper network but rollout of faster services will need Government support but not for them to foot the whole bill.
Mike Shaw asked about the controversy surrounding download speeds. IS answered that a number of factors can affect download speeds, including the distance of a household from its exchange. ADSL signals remain good till about 6 or 7 km out from the exchange. New technology called Broadband Extension Technology is trailed by Scotnet to double that range to 12 km. These are both copper based solutions, fibre does not suffer these issues of signal degradation. Taking fibre to the (street) cabinet effectively creates a ‘mini-exchange’.
Mike McGregor suggested that it would be useful for the Scottish Government to do some research work on what funding would be required as a first step. Michael Fourman commented that some work had been done by BD UK on costs of actual deployment and they may even be lower than previous estimates. He went on to say that focusing on the last mile is not addressing the problem. Communities cannot create a local solution if there is nothing behind it to ‘plug into’. IS pointed out that this may be true but fibre to every community would still need some form of wireless or FTTH/FTTC solution to make it work for everyone.
David Byers (DB) commented that it would require 60% public subsidy to reach 85% of the population in his area of the South of Scotland. The issue in rural areas is that there simply aren’t cabinets to rollout to. One third of the lines in his area come directly from the exchange rather than out to a cabinet. This requires a more sophisticated and innovative approach.
WC suggested that these discussions should be reflected in a Legacy Paper to offer to Session 4 of the Parliament.
In response to a question IS said that investment decisions at BT are demand driven, they take advice from ISPs but are also influenced by the level of competition in areas too. The challenge in Scotland amounts to far more than 10% of the population. The SFBB programme goes on till 2015 so there will be more areas announced as the rollout progresses.
Richard Wilkins commented that we must be aware of the potential for self perpetuating low demand creating low provision. Vicki Nash reminded that this was particularly acute in areas such as Glasgow where there is abundant supply in terms of communications products and providers but the issue of low demand remains. It was useful to see reference within the Digital Ambition document to doing some research into the dynamic within Glasgow.
Rural areas clearly offer more complexity in terms of investment decision making and MF quoted from the BIS report ‘Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future’ document, paragraph 4.3:
“We are taking a new approach to delivering connectivity in rural and hard to reach areas that the market will not provide for. Where local authorities have superfast broadband as a development priority, BDUK will work with them to source an upgrade to the data transport infrastructure. This will be the foundation of the Government’s £530m investment commitment over the lifetime of this Parliament”
MF argued that a greater proportion of this money should come to Scotland because of the rural focus of the fund and in recognition of Scotland having a great proportion of rural zones. Even using funding to get the ‘village pump’ i.e. fibre backbone to allow communities to stimulate development and innovation with their local solutions. IS warned that the costs of maintaining community infrastructure can be high and it can be difficult to ensure any solution is future proofed.
Moving on, WC asked RW if he would provide a resume of the meeting that had happened earlier in the day between the Minister, Fiona Hyslop and Martha Lane Fox, the UK Champion for Digital Inclusion. RW reported that there was little discussion surrounding infrastructure as this was not within MLF’s brief so the meeting had focused mainly on digital participation issues. Until now the links with Scottish Government and which aspects of the brief are reserved and which are devolved was not particularly clear. Both parties are keen to work closely and co-operatively to ensure maximum effectiveness of any programmes. The meeting concluded that there were lots of areas for further exploration.
One such area is that of UK wide Race Online 2012 (RO 2012) partners and what they might be able to do in Scotland. The absence of UK Online centres and the ability to send people to a single point for help and advice throughout the UK makes unified programmes more problematic although not impossible. It is unfortunate that not having the same branding but the same if not better infrastructure in Scotland was a barrier to a seamless campaign. The RO 2012 strategy is based heavily upon the Olympic Games in 2012 and the legacy planning being done as part of this. Clearly in Scotland the Commonwealth Games offers a similar but more locally focused opportunity. Ms Hyslop and Martha Lane-Fox also agreed that sharing of information and contacts would benefit both parties. here was a separate discussion over the BD UK £530m. As Scotland already has one of the pilot projects confirmed in the Highlands and Islands.
David Byers said that given there will be a further £300m after 2015 there is a need for a strategy to produce credible models for ‘final third’ funding to avoid a vast number of competing and less well assessed ideas.
Liz Leonard asked if RW and the Scottish Government had looked at some of the work done at the time of the Digital Participation Consortium when they invited bids for Scottish projects. There was also an Action Plan released which suggested consideration should be given to appointing a Digital Champion for Scotland.
RW agreed that the Scottish Government could look at additional activities and projects to cover all our digital participation issues but we should seek to work with RO2012 where it makes sense.
Stewart Nicol made a suggestion for the group’s legacy paper. He feels that although infrastructure development is considered to be a reserved matter, as a driver of economic development and its impact is greater within rural communities than in a city setting, it should be a policy focus for the Scottish Government.
Simon Medcalf said that he had tried as a RO2012 partner to deal with the larger UK wide partners and had found a degree of negativity surrounding the fact there has been no strategy in Scotland regarding digital matters.
WC thanked the group for their input and welcomed Diane Wright of Quarriers to the meeting.
DW introduced Quarriers as an organisation in its 140th year which currently supports 17,000 people. DW gave more information on how they use Digital Participation to enhance the quality of life of some of their disabled clients. Their participants have a variety of disabilities. Quarriers specialises in Epilepsy assessment, treatment and training and had the only epilepsy assessment centre in Scotland. Their DP project has been up and running for about 18 months and offers supported time in a computer suite with help to source and use adaptive technologies and accessible equipment. The sessions are led by each individual and what they want to do. The sessions quickly became oversubscribed and the feedback from participants very positive. From documenting the sessions and talking to the participants it was concluded that people with disabilities show less fear of technology and that there is a need to collate information on which approaches work and which don’t. It was also tricky to get information on adaptive technologies. Marie Dougan of LTScotland felt she could help with this information.
Each person who participated required a personal ‘hook and the project has already been evaluated. It was found that:
• The participants wanted more support and more time doing this activity
• There was a desire to learn more after initial taster sessions
• Time in the computer suite has become a key activity in all members care plans
• 20% of participants have now started college
• 45% of participants have now purchased their own computer, with the remaining 55% wanting to purchase their own computer.
DW then went on to detail some of the barriers they had faced in the course of the project:
• Lack of awareness of assistive technology
• People not knowing the potential of the internet
• Fear of technology – not knowing what’s best to buy
• Cost of PCs and broadband]
• Cost of assistive technologies
• Limited staff time to help people
• Activity is not considered a key support tool
• Limited amount of training and support for disabled people
From the project a new service is being developed– ACCESS IT, which is an information and support service. They aim to introduce technology needs assessments and at home support with their clients and provide specialist training for staff and adults with disabilities. One example might be internet safety training, further developing clients’ use of the internet beyond basic IT skills and potentially developing partnerships with further education and employability services. The implementation of this new service is dependant on funding availability.
The project has won a Care Accolade Award in 2010.
WC thanked DW for her compelling presentation and recalled his professional role with SCET in a very similar area. His concern today is that current software could be pushing people with additional needs further away from technology because of its complexity. DW answered that some e-commerce is tricky, especially sites such as Ticketmaster where sessions are timed and the spam filtering means users have to read and enter a code to carry out a transaction. MF suggested that the BBC website represented a good example with strong accessibility features. HTML5 seems to offer more features in terms of accessibility. A number of accessibility features are free within the computer and the project is proving that, with the right support, their no degree of severity of disability that cannot be overcome to offer skills, communication or simply entertainment to the participants of the project.
WC thanked the group for their attention and questions. Election of office bearers would be carried out electronically. He pointed out that there was not much likelihood of another meeting before the Scottish Parliamentary Elections. A date for future meeting would need to wait until after the Election.