One of the bright spots of 2020 has been the development and extension of gigabit broadband networks across non-metropolitan locations in England and Wales, and now homes and business in rural Scotland have been given access to more financial help to attain top-of-the-range broadband speeds.
The financing comes through a new collaboration between the Scottish and UK governments that will see the UK government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme extended north of the border. The UK government believes gigabit-capable broadband has the potential to make rural communities even more attractive places to live by giving people the freedom to work more flexibly and develop thriving digital economies.
In 2019, the UK government committed to delivering nationwide gigabit-capable broadband as soon as possible, with the ambition to deliver it by 2025. Many thought this programme would be severely curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic and that the nation’s broadband infrastructure would collapse through the extra strain of people working from home. But in September, research from UK communications regulator Ofcom provided evidence that this was avoided during lockdown by the accelerated roll-out of fibre networks capable of supporting gigabit broadband services.
The UK voucher scheme targets areas where the cost of building new gigabit broadband infrastructure, which often requires digging trenches to lay full-fibre cables to people’s doorsteps, is likely to be too high for commercial operators to cover alone. Since May 2019, vouchers worth up to £3,500 for small and medium-sized businesses and up to £1,500 for residential premises have been available to cover these costs across the UK.
The new Scottish voucher scheme will see voucher funding joined up to make more money available to subsidise the cost of building gigabit-capable broadband networks to hard-to-reach areas of Scotland. The Scottish government’s supplier-led Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (SBVS) was launched in August 2020 with the aim of providing Scottish citizens with access to superfast broadband by the end of 2021, after failing to hit the target through its main infrastructure project, Reaching 100% (R100) programme.
The Scottish government revealed in January 2020 that only half of the country’s population would have had 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 that initial ambitious target would be met. The new scheme will provide people with a voucher worth up to £5,000 to help deliver a permanent broadband connection to properties where there no roll-out of superfast broadband is planned.
To ensure access to gigabit-capable broadband to even those in the hardest-to-reach areas of Scotland, the Scottish government and UK government have combined their funding to offer up to £8,500 for small businesses and up to £6,500 for homes. This reflects similar moves made in Wales in June 2020 when residents and businesses were given access to more funding for better broadband, with the Welsh government topping up the UK government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme.
The first part of the Scottish project has seen £2.9m of UK government funding awarded to BT to connect more than 150 schools, libraries and other public buildings in Angus and Perth & Kinross to gigabit-speed broadband. The move comes as almost £6m for broadband across the Tay Cities region is being released through the UK government’s Local Full Fibre Networks programme.
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This will be followed by further procurements to be completed shortly which will release £2m to connect around 40 public buildings in Dundee and £1m for 30 premises in Perth & Kinross.
Ministers from the UK and Scottish governments are now urging businesses and communities to apply for the funding. Scotland’s connectivity minister, Paul Wheelhouse, said: “We have been working closely with the UK government to join up our respective funds and processes to maximise the impact of our respective voucher schemes across Scotland to add to progress achieved under the Digital Scotland Superfast Programme and augment our investment through our £600m R100 programme.
“This collaboration will ensure that more people, communities and businesses in the hardest-to-reach areas in Scotland are able to access maximum funding available for better broadband.”
Iain Stewart, UK minister for Scotland, added: “Better connectivity is more important than ever, with many people relying on technology to stay in touch with loved ones and work from home as we navigate the coronavirus pandemic. I encourage rural homes and businesses across Scotland to find out more information.”
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