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Firms should share plans for roll-out of fast broadband so 'low-priority areas' can take initiative

Telecoms companies and local authorities in Scotland should do more to encourage rural communities to take the initiative on fast broadband connections, the head of the European Commission's IT and communications directorate has said.

Speaking on a visit to Scotland last week, Robert Madelin, the European civil service's director general for communications networks (content and technology), told the Sunday Herald that the roll-out should be speeded up. Madelin said that "incumbent investors" such as BT should be "less opaque" about the timescale and extent of their plans to roll out fibre-optic broadband infrastructure, especially in rural areas, allowing communities that are not on the companies' immediate radar to seek partners and funding for other routes to connectivity.

Careful to stress that perceived under-investment and slow progress in the installation of rural broadband infrastructure was a Europe-wide issue and not a specifically Scottish problem, he added: "My honest sense, and this is not specific to BT, is that [big telecoms and local government] need to show a bit more transparency about the places that are not going to get to within in a couple of years, and this [information] would unleash a lot more local activism."

"There's too much of a culture that we have to have a top-down solution, and not enough honest statements that, 'Here's a big area where we aren't going to get for a while'. There is room to handle that in a more upfront way."

Madelin, a British national, was in Scotland as part of the European Commission's commitment to visit various areas "to make sure we're aware of what's happening in the real world, not sitting in the ivory tower of Brussels".

He cited the example of France, whose government took the "very healthy move" of giving companies six months to reveal the extent of their existing networks and their investment intentions, allowing for the creation of a "single authoritative map of the territory", as a basis for plans for state-aided infrastructure in lower-priority areas.

Madelin added: "I hear that infrastructure owners [in Scotland] are being a little bit opaque about where they have infrastructure. Sometimes local authorities and the BTs of this world say that's all confidential, and it's really hard to crack that open and allow the citizen to take charge of their own destiny."

He added that, given that Scotland was on the edge of a map of Europe, connectivity allowing bright youngsters in the islands to get the best education was "crucial".

Madelin said: "How much more you can do in the ICT age if you can link the powerhouses more closely to every individual talent in the rest of the territory. The connectivity in Scotland is not disastrous, but it's not as good as Sweden, for example, and there's no reason why it couldn't be."

Brendan Dick, BT's director in Scotland, said: "We announced yesterday that we've passed two-thirds of UK homes and businesses (19 million premises) with fibre broadband 21 months ahead of schedule and we are rolling out fibre into rural areas under the BDUK programme.

"UK fibre availability is at 73%, compared with our nearest neighbour, France, which currently stands at 20%-25%."

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