Note of Cross Party Group on Digital Participation
Initial Meeting – Wednesday 7 October 2009
Willie Coffey – MSP (chairing)
Liam McArthur – MSP
Alistair Morgan – MSP
John Park – MSP
Murdo Fraser – MSP
Patrick Harvie – MSP
Duncan McLean – Willie Coffey’s office
Alan Stewart – Ofcom Scotland
Ian Shanks – BT
Stewart Nicol – Inverness Chamber of Commerce
David Hume – Scottish Borders Council
Claire Mack – Ofcom Scotland
Moray Borthwick – Ofcom Scotland
WC welcomed everyone to the meeting and gave a short overview of his interest in the issues. He stated his belief that this group had the potential to interrogate issues additional to those covered by the Cross Party Group on Culture and Media. He felt that a Digital Participation Group could consider the impact of digital technologies on public services and seek to understand gaps in provision and skills and how these gaps could be closed. WC asked for views from around the table.
AS outlined Ofcom’s role and remit in terms of Digital Participation and some current issues.
IS acknowledged BT’s vested commercial interest in getting people online. BT is also very concerned about the seeming rejection in certain areas and of certain sections of society of digital services and what can be done. The aim could be to better understand the ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor of going online. Dealing with this and other issues such as technophobia – skills and knowledge gaps were important as was ensuring that everyone understands the financial and social benefits of being online. Scotland has 1070 exchanges all of which offer broadband via a variety of means. 21 exchanges in the Western Isles supply broadband via a large wireless operation and there are 119 exchanges that offer up to 0.5 MB speeds. Edinburgh and Glasgow are seeing the rollout of up to 24MB while fibre deployment in some areas could deliver up to 40MB.
SN reported that broadband and service provision was top of the list of issues for his 300 members. Members’ experiences of availability and capacity were not generally positive in Inverness and the surrounding area. In the past the Highlands were ahead in terms of ISDN technology now the situation seems to be going backwards. The rural Highlands present special issues – capacity of the network to carry the data necessary to rural businesses is key.
AM talked about the ‘shifting sands’ nature of technology. Keeping apace with developments is always going to be a challenge, but one that should be taken. What constitutes a decent broadband connection will constantly change dependent on content and what people want to use it for. Capacity is something we may never have enough of in terms of a broadband network.
LM said that people expect not just access to broadband but access to a reasonable speed of service too. The levels of exclusion seem to be increasing as the online world changes. He was also concerned about advertised broadband speeds and the fact that these were rarely delivered.
JH focused on physical and geographical barriers. It is individuals that access the internet via broadband and they can face issues that they perhaps don’t have the technical confidence to deal with. These people are not getting the same access to democracy as more and more services move online. We also need to look at changes in skills for the workplace and also to look at other outreach/intervention projects to take lessons from them. He was also keen that group look at barriers of every form to people getting involved in the digital world.
PH said he was very interested in the group and the important issues it could potentially deal with. His interests were similar to JH’s but he also holds a keen interest in some of the less physical barriers and aspects to digital participation. He agreed with AM that we will never get beyond the ideal infrastructure and should accept that this will be an ongoing issue of discussion/development. His questions are more cultural and educational rather than focusing intently on X number of people getting XMb/s. He is interested in the nature and quality of participation and people sensing ownership of the digital technologies surrounding them. Having the confidence to access a variety of operating systems and be able to fully take control of software and adapt to their needs. Schools for example teach very little programming skills and there is an increasing disconnectedness over what is going on ‘under the bonnet’ – consuming products without fully understanding how they work.
MF said his main concerns lay with rural access and assistance for rural communities.
IS pointed out that out of reach communities could apply to Avanti for a satellite broadband service. Digital Britain has of course made a key aim of providing universal broadband coverage at 2Mb/s BT had successfully trialled a new broadband extension technology that could extend delivery to area further away from exchanges, offering 2Mb up to 12Km from exchanges.
AM stated that exclusion was not simply to do with access to services; it also covered knowledge and skills gaps. These gaps have in the past been less important as we tried to roll out the technology but as society moves towards digital services these are becoming less and less available conventionally to those without the skills and knowledge.
DH told the group about the Scottish Borders Council role in delivery of the Pathfinder project. This was a £52Million public sector network which has revolutionised the service that they can offer. SBC’s economic development strategy has digital connectivity at its heart. This will allow the South of Scotland to grow both its population and its businesses and offer more in terms of citizen participation. The move away from actual newspapers and local media means that more news and information will be delivered online. They are also undertaking a project looking at mobile phones and connectivity.
WC said that he could see the digital divide widening and the role of the Group could be to look at narrowing these gaps by making recommendations to Government and encouraging Local Authorities to support the aims.
IS mentioned the Digital Alliance Group that had been convened under the Scottish Executive a few years ago. This had provided a focus for these issues. WC agreed and said that the group could pick up these issues. DH said that there were relevant examples from other countries such as Canada to look at to understand how better to encourage people to join the digital world. The group would need to consider both mobile and fixed line provision given that some people were entirely reliant upon mobile services for communications. Further discussion focused on housing associations, new house building, the business case from Superfast broadband, Jedburgh – Scotland’s only fully WiFi town and the use of videoconferencing to save money, reduce travel and add flexibility to education.
WC explained the formal process required to form the Group and the next steps.
DM agreed to oversee the timetable to set up the group. It was expected that the Standards Committee in November would give their view. The inaugural meeting and formal launch (assuming Standards Committee approval) would be either 8th or 10th December.