SCOTLAND'S rural population is being hit by people leaving for urban areas that have faster internet speeds, a government minister has claimed.


Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead says evidence is emerging that 300 years after the forced displacement of a significant number of people in the Scottish Highlands due to the agricultural revolution - a broadband-led rural depopulation is underway.

That is amid concerns that nearly one-fifth of homes in the Highlands and Islands will remain stuck on slower internet speeds.

Finance Secretary John Swinney has pledged to ensure 95% of homes and businesses in Scotland will have access to superfast broadband by 2018, but some regions will fall short without additional funding, MSPs heard.

Ministers this year announced a £264 million investment in high-speed fibre optic broadband and £146m for faster broadband in the Highlands and Islands.

BT has been awarded the contract to deploy the fibre, investing £106.7m in the roll-out. However, the public purse will bear the brunt of the funding.

The National Audit Office said in July the UK government's target of extending standard broadband coverage to 90% of homes in the country by May 2015 was running nearly two years late and had so far failed to deliver value for money through contract competition.

It found most of the rival bidders to BT for contract work have now fallen away, leaving the telecoms giant to pick up the licences for all 44 rural broadband projects on offer and around £1.2 billion public funding.

Mr Lochhead said there was now evidence of people leaving rural communities to live in urban areas, "so there is rural depopulation due to a lack of connectivity".

The Scottish Government evidence came from a report by Scotland's Rural College entitled Rural Scotland in Focus 2012.

Mr Lochhead said: "The Scottish Government is very keen to step in with Scottish resources to try and ensure that we do all we can to connect our more remote and rural communities to the 21st century.

"While you have traditional conversations about people leaving rural communities due to lack of access to higher education, affordable housing or employment, now there is an added factor where there is not good connectivity that can also lead to rural depopulation.

"Some research I have seen in the last year or so has started to show some evidence of that, and that should concern us all."