THE Scottish Government has admitted the failure of its flagship £600m plan to bring superfast broadband to every home and office in the country by the end of next year.

Connectivity minister Paul Wheelhouse told MSPs only around half of the premises in the R100 programme in south and central Scotland would be connected by 2021.

The rest should be connected by the end of 2023, he said.

Mr Wheelhouse was unable to give any date whatsoever for connecting premises in the north of Scotland because of a legal dispute.

As a stop-gap, he said homes and offices not connected under R100 by 2021 would be eligible for a voucher scheme to help them access commercial broadband services.

He said the fall-back service would be launched later this year and would offer grants to both domestic and non-domestic premises until the R100 roll-out reched them. 

This should enable them to use satellite operators, fixed wireless/mobile operators and larger fibre suppliers, ensuring superfast access for all premises in the agreed timescale.

The Scottish Tories said the timetable was disappointing, while Labour said the SNP had over-promised in its 2016 manifesto.

READ MORE: Delay puts timetable for £600m rural broadband roll-out in doubt

The announcement is acutely embarrassing for Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing, who in 2018 promised to resign if the R100 target date of 2021 was missed.

“If I don’t deliver this by 2021, I think it will be time for Fergus Ewing to depart and do something else, and leave the job to somebody else.

“But I can assure you, we’re on the case,” he told the Scottish Land and Estates conference.

In the SNP’s 2016 Holyrood manifesto, Nicola Sturgeon promised to “deliver 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage for Scotland by the end of the next Parliament”.

Initially set for spring 2021, the target later slipped to the end of 2021.

The R100 programme suffered a series of delays in arranging contractors to install 30Mbps+ connections to the most remote corners of the country.

The Scottish Government last month confirmed it had finally signed off two of the three regional contracts for the R100 programme, but a legal challenge from Oxford-based Gigaclear was holding up the third.

The area affected is the north of Scotland, which accounts for the bulk of the R100 scheme.

It involves around 99,288 premises and is worth around £384m.

READ MORE: SNP's flagship broadband programme faces more delay over legal challenge

The problem was revealed in a written parliamentary answer issued on the last day of Holyrood term before the Christmas break by Mr Wheelhouse.

Gigaclear was one of several firms which expressed an interest in the procurement exercise for the scheme, which began in 2017.

In a statement at Holyrood on Thursday, Mr Wheelhouse said many of the R100 premises would benefit from speeds of 1000MBps, rather than the 30MBps initially promised.

He said: “This roll-out means Scotland will have enhanced digital connectivity years ahead of the rest of the UK.

“R100 will ensure that Scotland is ahead of the curve, not just in the UK, but internationally.

"Through our investment, we will extend full-fibre broadband to much of rural Scotland, going beyond our original commitment, and helping to deliver future-proofed economic, social and environmental benefits for the whole country.

“This is one of the most challenging broadband infrastructure builds anywhere in the world, and this, combined with the decision to future-proof our technology, means the work will take time to complete.

“We are also setting up a voucher scheme which will launch later this year. This will provide grants to broadband customers, ahead of the delivery of the R100 contracts, to support access to a range of technologies and suppliers.

“It is disappointing not to be able to announce details of the contract for the North Lot due to a dispute over the awarding of the contract, but the Scottish Government is doing its utmost to ensure that people in the north of Scotland can access superfast broadband through the R100 programme as soon as possible, including through our voucher scheme.”

After several Tory MSPs raised Mr Ewing’s possible resignation, Mr Wheelhouse defended his colleague.

He said: “Mr Ewing is an honourable man as you know, but he has moved on. I take the blows on the chin.”

Tory MSP Jamie Greene said the SNP had a record of failure on big promises.  

He said: “Another day, another failed contract, another broken promise from the SNP.

“We now learn that this flagship manifesto commitment will not be met and the so-called Reaching100 project will not be delivered until at least 2024 for most households, possibly even years later for others.

“The SNP had no obligation to make to promises it couldn’t keep to businesses and residents, but it chose to do so for political gain knowing it was nigh on impossible to deliver.

“Thankfully the UK government already has a voucher scheme in place for Scottish homes and companies looking to upgrade their internet and there is a UK wide Conservative government commitment to invest a further £5bn on fibre connectivity.

“The SNP like to talk the talk but when it comes to delivering for Scotland the only things they actually deliver are shiny headlines and broken promises.”

Labour MSP Colin Smyth said: "The announcement that the SNP Government was never, ever going to deliver its R100 programme by the end of 2021 is the worst kept secret.

"It is deeply disappointing for the people of Scotland, particularly those in the North of the country who have been given no indication as to when they can expect access to superfast broadband”

"Superfast broadband is no luxury. The ability to have quick and easy access to the internet is a necessity in the modern world, particularly for those in rural areas from the Highlands to the  Borders.

“The delay to the completion of the R100 programme risks holding back rural communities and hampering economic growth in areas already disadvantaged, widening Scotland’s digital divide."

LibDem MSP Mike Rumbles added: "The minister is delusional if he thinks people will buy his statement. This is the third time Ministers have announced a delay to the project and it is still the case that not a single penny of R100 funding has been spent delivering superfast broadband to homes in Scotland.  

“The Scottish Government’s progress to deliver this 2016 election promise has been nothing but glacial and it is now clear that they had no intention of trying to deliver the programme on time. This commitment is now being replaced with a ‘voucher’ scheme. So instead of getting the service by the end of 2021 they will receive a piece of paper instead. What people want to know is when they will be connected not when they will receive a voucher!

“Ministers have utterly failed to do what they said they would do and thousands of homes in rural and remote communities have been let down by this Scottish Government.”

Under the Scotland Act 1998, the legal and regulatory responsibility for telecoms in the UK rests solely with the UK Parliament and UK Ministers.

However the Scottish Government is attempting to use economic development powers to subsidise broadband delivery through R100.

No other part of the UK has matched this commitment by the Scottish Government.

As the Herald revealed, a Scottish Government procurement document last year said the timeframe for delivering R100 was now “over the next four years”, taking it to 2023.

Andrew McRae of theFederation of Small Businesses in Scotland, said: “Scottish broadband infrastructure has improved dramatically over the last few years.

"But that’s of little comfort to any independent Scottish business that continues to waste time or miss opportunities due to poor connectivity.

“When everyone from the banks to the taxman expects all businesses to have good broadband, this new delay will be bitterly disappointing for many businesses still stuck in the digital slow lane. A new voucher scheme might plug some gaps, but that’s not what firms thought they were promised. At the very least Ministers must deliver on these revised timescales.”