Tavish's speech at Broadband and Mobile Phone Coverage (Rural and Island Communities) Debate

Tavish Scott spoke in the broadband and mobile phone coverage in Parliament yesterday, having moved the motion S4M-15404, calling for further action to bring superfast broadband to harder to reach areas.

His speech was as follows:

The crime drama “Shetland” is currently screening on TV on a Friday. Most of us at home are watching it to see whether we are in it, whether any of our friends are extras are in it, or even just to see whether our house is in it. For those of us who do not watch it, Dougie Henshall is often on his mobile, not just in Lerwick but out in the wilds of the islands. That is where the TV series very definitely becomes fiction. I am pleased to say that there have been no recent murders in Shetland; nor has mobile phone coverage reached all the islands.

Mobile phone coverage and fast broadband are linked. Many mobile phone companies see no economic case for improving coverage in Shetland. I know that that is the case across large chunks of our country. The situation will worsen as companies merge and competition diminishes. For example, much of Shetland is excluded from Vodafone’s rural open sure signal project. Why? Because it needs a reliable, if modest, broadband service.

Last October, EE was awarded the contract for Airwave, the network that is used by the emergency services across Scotland and indeed across the United Kingdom. That contract could specify 4G across Scotland, which would mean better broadband on phones and tablets than people will get through the superfast broadband roll-out that is supported by the Scottish and UK Governments, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and British Telecom.

I ask the Deputy First Minister to ensure that the new emergency mobile phone system is specified as 4G not just in Shetland but right across Scotland because of the benefits that that would undoubtedly bring to many parts of the country. It is, I know, a UK Government responsibility, but I will very much support Mr Swinney and his Government if they are able to make that case. I say that because superfast broadband, like certain beer commercials, is not quite reaching the parts that it is meant to reach.

Last week, I received a letter from the Deputy First Minister about the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme. He wrote:

“Areas as far north as Lerwick in the Shetland Islands and as far south as Gretna in Dumfries and Galloway are now live thanks to the programme.”

As the Deputy First Minister knows, there is more to Shetland than just Lerwick. Shetlanders living in Unst, Walls or Northmavine are just plain fed up at having no idea when they will benefit from all the public money that is rightly being invested in superfast broadband.

In the islands, investment needs to be directed at providing high-speed broadband for the hardest to reach customers rather than chasing a flat percentage population target. I suspect that I am not the only constituency member who would like to see that approach. Will the Deputy First Minister agree with that approach and look at how his Government can best target the resources that are available?

A Uyeasound resident in Unst told me last week that she is unable to view online learning videos for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. I have a letter—no doubt many other rural members do as well—from the chief officer of the service, Alasdair Hay, saying that the service is desperate for new retained firefighters. However, Caroline Hunter in Unst cannot do her online fire training because the broadband is so woeful. That rather makes the point about the importance of broadband in providing emergency services that we all depend on.

Despite receiving a meagre 0.5Mbps, Caroline and other folk in Uyeasound are forced to pay the same as those who receive 20Mbps—such as here in the capital city of Scotland. They see that as extremely iniquitous. I agree and I hope that the Deputy First Minister does too. Perhaps he can say tonight what Ofcom, the regulator, is doing about what seems to many across Scotland—and certainly in Shetland—to be a manifestly unfair situation.

An Aith father—rather more pointedly, perhaps, as I am a parent myself—said to me that a simple update to his son’s games console could exceed the household’s monthly broadband data allowance, given what they can currently access. For those of us with children, in an age of multidevice households—I do not know how many are in my home—that just does not cut it.

More needs to be done. Numerous constituents believe that they will not benefit from the broadband roll-out that is currently envisaged. The Northmavine Community Council cannot progress its community project as it is passed from pillar to post between BT, HIE and community broadband Scotland.

I asked the Scottish Parliament information centre to confirm how many of community broadband Scotland’s projects have been completed. It could not come back to me with an answer on that. It would be helpful if the Deputy First Minister could tell Parliament how those projects are coming along. I hope, too, that he would recognise that communities without any plan or date for broadband upgrades deserve not just answers but action and greater clarity from the Scottish Government, BT and HIE.

Shetland residents say that digital Scotland’s scheduled rollouts for their respective areas are heroically optimistic. One Stromfirth resident told me how his local exchange was listed as

“Coming soon between July and December 2015”.

Observant members will recognise that we are now in February 2016, and it has not come yet. Helpfully, the website now says that broadband is going to come soon between January and June of the year that we are now in. People are understandably frustrated when there is an expectation of progress and then it does not actually happen.

In that particular example, HIE and BT justify not providing a local broadband cabinet by saying that

“it would only provide superfast speeds to a minority.”

I was a bit taken aback by that, because is that not the point? Why should the few be left behind? The whole point of investment in superfast broadband with public money is to help the areas in all our constituencies that currently cannot achieve it through market provision. Incidentally, HIE is unable to confirm whether my constituent in that case will receive coverage in any future phase.

Another Gott resident is a photographer. Her download speed is 0.39Mbps, so she struggles to send photos via email. HIE and BT have confirmed that she will not see the benefits of the roll-out due to her distance from the existing telephone exchange. I am sure that many colleagues will recognise that issue. No fibre cabinet is currently planned or coming soon in the area.

I reiterate my call for further investment in the areas of Shetland and elsewhere in Scotland that have poor or non-existent superfast broadband. I ask the Deputy First Minister to explain where and when we will see improvements to superfast broadband and who will be the 5 per cent who are left behind, because they are the ones who feel it the most at the moment. I hope that he will accept that his Government, HIE and BT must be more transparent with local people about if and when they will really see that improvement.

Fast internet is a service that many people take for granted, and I very much look forward to the day when we can do the same in Shetland and in all parts of Scotland. If the Deputy First Minister can provide my constituents with a route map to achieve that, he will have my full support.

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