THEY'VE stopped digging up our streets and pavements to stuff miles of fibre-optic cable underground. In recent years the rewiring of urban Scotland by a clutch of competing telecoms companies seemed to blight everyday life. But the absence of squads of Clincart and Kennedy labourers cutting channels through our tarmac, day-in-day-out, should not be taken as a sign that the job is complete at last. Rather, the disappearance of them, their bollards, and their brightly coloured plastic ducting is a stark reminder that the telecoms sector is enduring a much more severe market battering than all those dot gone and forgottens.

Lord Simpson managed, in little more than a year, to turn Marconi (the former GEC) into a penny stock by selling off its defence interests and switching into telecoms equipment at precisely the wrong moment. He had his comeuppance this week. But Marconi, like Lucent in the US and Nortel in Canada, is only one of the more spectacular telecoms casualties. BT is currently worth about a quarter of its value at the start of this millennium. Debt at France Telecom, the parent of the UK's leading mobile operator Orange, has hit (pounds) 40bn. Scotland's two indigenous telecoms start-ups, Atlantic and Thus, languish at mere fractions of their peak valuations. Atlantic is under growing pressure to

liquidate itself.

The Financial Times estimated this week that, worldwide, the telecoms industry has seen a trillion dollars ((pounds) 700bn) go up in smoke in this slump so far. Worse, this unprecedented bonfire of wealth and dreams has pushed the rest of the world economy close to outright recession. Only the very brave would choose this moment to contemplate investing in new telecoms capability. Forget Brussels on Wednesday night. Step forward Scotland the Brave.

The issue is bandwidth. And we are told that having more of it is more important to the future of civilisation than the advent of roads, railways, canals, air travel, the telephone, and mail services put together were to earlier generations. If we do not invest in the carrier bandwidth necessary to achieve instant, reliable communication of growing mountains of data wherever we are, we will end up tasting what it's like to live in the Third World.

There is no consensus about the best way of enhancing bandwidth. Fibre-optic cable - the same stuff that's used to do keyhole surgery and create some of the gaudiest table lamps in any lighting store - can carry astonishing quantities of data at high speed. But there are rival technologies. Even existing copper-wire networks can be beefed up to deliver more. Nor is there any consensus on whether investing in greater bandwidth first automatically delivers more and more demand. A lot of the fibre already installed under Scotland's cities remains dark. In other words it's unused. And there's an increasingly healthy debate about whether our appetite for sending and receiving bigger and bigger quantities of information and images wherever we happen to be - sitting in front of our televisions or personal computers at home, on our mobile phones or, as some would have it, into watch devices on our

wrists - really is going to prove as insatiable as some futurists would have us believe.

Despite these large, unresolved issues, Scotland the Brave already has a broadband strategy. It was thrashed out before the real scale of the meltdown in the global telecoms industry became apparent. It came hand-in-hand with a desire to bury the Scottish whinge and embrace the new economy. The Scottish Executive sees investment in more broadband capability throughout Scotland as one of the keys to creating a smarter, more successful country. Its approach has been backed, with minor reservations, by the all-party enterprise and lifelong learning committee. It is a rare instance of consensual Holyrood politics. But the Scottish Executive is in no position, given all the other pressing financial priorities it has embraced, to start digging up Scotland and complete the wiring job on its own account.

According to evidence from the main trade lobbying group, ScotlandIS, the cost of bringing broadband access to every home in Scotland could add up to (pounds) 800m. The cost of wiring Scotland directly into the rest of the world, via a new transatlantic link, rather than the current, more expensive option of routing all our traffic through London, could cost another (pounds) 1000m. That's the best part of (pounds) 2000m, some 10% of the executive's entire annual budget. On top of Sutherland, teachers' pay, free student tuition, and investment in our water infrastructure, it's simply not a credible option.

But is it any more credible that the debt-ridden telecoms companies, in their current parlous state, will start firing optic fibre up every glen in the hope that some serious revenue streams will start flowing in return? Some of them, notably Thus, have been sniping away at the strategy, fearful that it might take existing business away from them. Wendy Alexander, enterprise minister, is trying to finesse a compromise by bundling together potential public sector demand for broadband as a way of whetting the telecoms companies' investment interest; by announcing two pathfinder projects in the Highlands and Islands and in the south of Scotland; and by securing the services of David Sibbald, one of Scotland's brightest communications software entrepreneurs, to help drive the strategy forward.

But delivering world-class bandwidth right across Scotland in the present climate won't be easy. Given the rapid deterioration in the financial condition of the entire telecoms sector, the chair of the ELL committee, Alex Neil, warned in a Holyrood debate yesterday that ''a greater level of public investment will be required to pump-prime'' progress. I sat through the committee's face-to-face on the issue with the Scottish financial sector earlier in the week. I can't say that experience inspired me to expect rapid progress.

The prevailing mood was let's do it and let's do it now. Not once in two hours did anyone even so much as mention the cost or indicate which other commitments the executive should ditch to release the funds to make the investment. One dissident, Jan Duffy King, an expatriate Scot from New York, who dared suggest that broadband is only a means to an end, isn't needed tomorrow by most users, and will come anyway if only we can jack up demand, was slapped down from all sides. He'd even gone to the trouble of phoning up one of the established broadband providers here. Out of 1,700,000 customers they currently have just 38,000 broadband subscribers on their books. That's 2% market penetration. But such inconvenient facts didn't protect him from the self-interested broadband enthusiasts on all sides.

Then Nick Kuenssberg, the new chairman of ScotlandIS, who had earlier told us this was more important than the roads, rail, and the Royal Mail put together, performed an extraordinary U-turn and went on to confess: ''I'm not sure access is our problem. There's already a lot of spare capacity out there. Demand is the issue. There's no point issuing an instruction to the Scottish Executive to broadband Scotland.'' No-one even blinked. His doubts weren't reported next day. Just the call for action now.

Another participant warned against ''analysis paralysis''. But so much has changed since Scotland the Brave committed itself to a broadband future that the analysis is no longer complete. If asset recovery rates from telecoms companies that have gone bust are currently running at 3%, is this a convincing time to be demanding up to (pounds) 1800m of new investment that might end up fuelling a trillion-dollar bonfire instead?