Having stayed in its shell while other parts of the UK powered ahead, Scotland needs sustained action now to build the fibre-optic connectivity needed to make the country competitive. Alex Neil MSP, the Infrastructure Minister and one of Scotland’s most effective political operators, is promising to deliver it.
Next month the Scottish Government’s Cabinet sub-committee on digital infrastructure which he chairs meets to sign off an action plan (“I stress the word action”) to be unveiled in January next year.
The plan will spell out how the SNP administration intends to deploy its £143 million digital infrastructure war chest to bring the economic and social revolution of superfast broadband -- now considered as vital to national wealth and wellbeing as roads, water and electricity -- to Scotland’s furthest-flung communities.
Neil explains: “We have £68m from the UK Government which is our share of the BBC licence money [known as Broadband UK or BDUK], which quite frankly is not nearly as much as we should have got. We have £50m in our own next generation digital fund and we have earmarked £25m of European money.
“The Cabinet sub-committee will be considering a draft of the plan in December, and our intention is to publish in -January. And I intend to keep to that. Believe you me, our foot is very much now on the accelerator.”
Cast-iron reassurances are required after a series of slipped deadlines and unkept promises suggested that Scottish officialdom didn’t really “get” the superfast transformation sweeping Europe.
The least flattering contrast is with Northern Ireland, where a public-sector partnership with BT has meant that 24MB superfast will be available to 85% of businesses by April 2012, with plans afoot to increase coverage further.
Here, after years of ignoring the subject, the Scottish Government unveiled a “Strategy for Scotland” with much razzmatazz in February. Fronted by then culture secretary Fiona Hyslop it was a lame but verbose feat of pre-election back-covering, complete with an “action plan” never seriously meant to be followed.
The Scottish public sector has largely kept silent on the benefits of superfast to business and the communities, and on ways to roll them out to customers and citizens.
This lack of engagement is not due to a lack of grass-roots or expert pressure. The capabilities and growth-boosting potential of the technology are well documented in publications such as Reform Scotland’s Digital Power (August 2010) and the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Digital Scotland (October 2010), whose advice to Neil has obviously now been taken.
‘SUPERFAST broadband is critically important because we have to make our economy competitive for the 21st century. I don’t believe that we can reach our full potential without it,” he says.
“It’s also a way in which we can regenerate our rural communities, particularly our more remote rural and island communities. It gives them total access in real time to information and the global media. No matter which area of policy you look at, it’s absolutely core to where we need to be as a country in five, 10, 15 or 20 years’ time.”
Neil insists -- and expert consultees confirm -- that since his own appointment in May there has been a flurry of civil service activity around superfast, and he hints that a hare-and-tortoise narrative may even be in the offing.
Critics note that the Scottish Government is not actually match-funding the BDUK allocations as other parts of the UK are doing. Nevertheless it is just possible that years of inertia might, perversely, work in our favour if our belated start allows Scotland to learn from others’ mistakes in the complex financial and engineering challenges of installing a rural fibre network.
“We are determined to get our action plan done and dusted in the next couple of months,” Neil says. “We are determined to move ahead as quickly as possible. My aim is not just to catch up with the Cornwalls of this world or the Jerseys or the Hulls, my aim is to overtake them as quickly as we can. There are some benefits in organising this at a national governmental level, that England doesn’t have, because of the number of local governments in the set-up. We have a more manageable situation up here.
“We have done the strategy stuff. We now know how much money we have got so we are in a position to draft and prepare the action plan. I have talked to industry. We are looking at what is happening elsewhere but we are not going to do a world tour of digital sites before getting on with it. The drive behind this is not just from me but from the whole Cabinet because it’s so core to what we are trying to achieve.”
Neil cites the importance of better connectivity to other pioneering government agendas such as e-health and e-learning. He even looks beyond the immediate need to give Scotland a future-proof fibre-optic backbone to the next phases such as building new connections to Europe and promoting Scotland’s nascent data-storage industry.
Tacitly conceding that progress so far has been poor, Neil cites his old Ayr Academy motto “Respice, Prospice” -- look back, look forward. “My approach to this is forget the Respice, let’s focus on the Prospice,” he says.
“Yes, we wanted to get this done a whole lot quicker but there were three things that held us up. We knew the election was coming, and elections change things. It made sense to do this once that had settled. Second, the McLelland Report [into IT in the public sector] and where that fits in as clearly it’s a part of the whole strategy, it’s so important. The procurement powers [of the Scottish Government] are leverage we can we use on top of the £143m to get more private-sector investment.”
“But the third factor and most important one is that we didn’t know how much money we were going to have. It was only last month [actually August] that the UK Government told us this. But worse than that they actually refused to share the intelligence and information they had about the mapping, what was on the ground and so on.”
CULTURE Secretary Jeremy Hunt strongly refutes this (see box), but in any case as an excuse it does not much impress the experts, who point out that no area that has progressed superfast has waited for its BDUK budget allocation before getting the ball rolling.
Professor Michael Fourman of the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, lead author of the Royal Society of Edinburgh report, concedes that “Scotland has more than its fair share of the problems, it should get more than a proportionate share of the money to address the problems”.
But he suggests the Scottish Government, should be looking to countries such as Sweden, where they have achieved miracles by incentivising the private sector and eliminating regulatory obstacles.
“In Sweden, 44% of houses and businesses already have access to broadband speeds of 100MB. At the moment in Scotland we don’t even have 2MB in some places. In our big cities, some people are getting 40MB. I don’t know if anyone is getting 100MB, except for people on an academic network. We need to get our skates on if we are going to meet EU 2020 target of 50% to have 100MB. In Sweden they are nearly there already. This is too important a question to play politics with.
“We should just get on with it, there is nothing stopping us technically, geographically or fiscally if we were giving it the right strategic importance. To me, this is at least as important as the replacement Forth Bridge, high-speed rail or the Edinburgh Tram. ”
So what should the January broadband plan include?
Stuart Gibson, former head of telecoms and media at HBOS who led the Digital Power report for Reform Scotland, is clear that it “needs to put in place an internationally competitive digital infrastructure”.
Gibson says: “Scotland has more need of this than other countries because of its geography and its location on the edge of Europe.”
He also believes, and appears to have convinced Neil also, that the weight of public sector procurement of IT connectivity, amounting to about £200m, is “a big lever” which could be used to incentivise private sector providers to invest in the infrastructure that would benefit every area from mobile connectivity to education to health.
This genial-but-tough politician can be expected to get the most value out of the BDUK money, while referendum politics compel him to complain that we were “diddled”. As he puts it: “My job is to get the best deal for the tax player and for the end users in Scotland. The more I can make that £143m leverage additional funding from local authorities and from the [private sector] contractors the better, as there will be a large community benefit in there. In the south of Scotland, for example, the two local authorities have identified a million-and-a-half pounds that they can both put into the fund. “This sounds like what Polly Purvis of industry group Scotland IS meant when she called last week for the Scottish Government to “show leadership through the use of its spending powers to maximise investment to ensure the rapid deployment of future-proofed broadband infrastructure.”
One of Neil’s own first actions will be to visit Cornwall, a rare learning journey southwards for a Scottish minister. There, BT’s partnership with the Cornwall Development Council seems to have pleased all partners, and all users.
Replicating a similarly effective public private partnership throughout Scotland could cause superfast users to offer daily thanks to the Government that provided -- referendum day not excluded. It would liberate the nation from the tyranny of distance, so that Macrahanish would be as good a place to run a hedge fund as Mayfair, should you wish to do so.
Playing the Blame Game
IN an extraordinary war of words, Alex Neil has accused Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt of an “absurd” refusal to share information about the technical background of the BDUK allocation, of withholding a portion of the unallocated £100 million from the total fund, and of “short-changing” and “diddling” Scotland out of a fair proportion of the £530m.
“They wouldn’t share any information, nothing about where the cabinets and exchanges are, how they work out what needs to be done, how they work out the formula.” Neil (pictured right) said that as Wales received £58m of BDUK, Scotland with twice the population should get “considerably more” than £68m.
The Department of Media, Culture and Sport said the extent of its co-operaton with the Scottish Government was well supported by documentation, adding that “as Alex Neil knows very well” the allocation is based on gaps on existing infrastructure provision not on population. It accused the Scottish Government of not doing enough to support the roll-out.
Hunt told the Sunday Herald: “It’s a great shame that the Scottish Government, unlike the Welsh and Northern Irish, has so far not announced match funding for the broadband money we have given them. If Scotland is going to get superfast broadband it’ll be thanks to ambitious plans and funding from the coalition government in Westminster and sadly, without the much-needed support of the Scottish Government.”
“Rather than trying to play politics, Mr Neil should do what the other devolved assemblies and local authorities around the country have done and engage constructively with us.”