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Scottish government misses national superfast broadband target

SNP government admits failing to meet ambitious target to roll out broadband of at least 30Mbps to all Scottish homes and businesses by 2021

The Scottish government has admitted that it will not be able to meet the target of its Reaching 100% (R100) programme of offering superfast broadband access to all Scottish homes and business by 2021.

In a statement to the devolved parliament on the details of the contracts to deliver the £600m scheme, Scotland’s minister for connectivity, Paul Wheelhouse, conceded that only half of the population would have access to broadband connections of at least 30Mbps by the end of next year and that it was likely to be the end of 2023 when the initial ambitious target would be met.

The Scottish government will now offer citizens who will not be able to access such services by 2021 – mainly those in the north of the country – vouchers to buy such broadband access from commercial suppliers. The scheme will allow people to obtain superfast broadband from satellite operators, fixed wireless/mobile operators and larger fibre suppliers.

Covering the whole of Scotland, the R100 programme was officially launched in December 2017 with the aim of extending the availability of next-generation access (NGA) to 100% of premises by 2021. It formed part of a 2016 Scottish parliament election manifesto commitment by the ruling SNP.

To achieve its aims, the Scottish government said in 2017 that it would procure further coverage of NGA broadband infrastructure capable of delivering download speeds of at least 30Mbps in areas where such broadband was then unavailable. The government said on introducing the plan that fast and reliable internet connection was vital for the economic and social wellbeing of all its communities.

It calculated its investment at more than three times what the UK government was putting towards its own fibre broadband roll-out at the time and saw its move as transformational, in particular able to revitalise the prospects of rural areas across Scotland. Procurement contracts were split into geographic Lots.

Yet in a statement to the Scottish parliament, Wheelhouse conceded that the government was disappointed not to be able to announce details of the contract for the Lot for the north of the country, attributing this to a dispute over the awarding of the contract. “This is one of the most challenging broadband infrastructure builds anywhere in the world,” he said, “and this, combined with the decision to future-proof our technology, means the work will take time to complete.”

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Wheelhouse said the Scottish government was “doing its utmost” to ensure that people in the north of Scotland could access superfast broadband through the R100 programme as soon as possible and insisted that the roll-out plans would still mean Scotland would have enhanced digital connectivity years ahead of the rest of the UK.

But rival parties from across the Scottish political spectrum attacked the government’s admission of failure to meet the target. The BBC quoted Scottish Conservative infrastructure spokesman Jamie Greene as saying: “It was another day, another failed contract, another broken promise from the SNP. The SNP had no obligation to make promises it couldn’t keep to businesses and residents, but it chose to do so for political gain, knowing it was nigh-on impossible to deliver.”

Scottish Labour MSP Colin Smyth added: “The government was never, ever going to deliver its R100 programme by the end of 2021. Superfast broadband is no luxury. The ability to have quick and easy access to the internet is a necessity in the modern world, particularly for those in rural areas from the Highlands to the Borders.”

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