THE SNP’s flagship £600million rural broadband scheme is currently running six years late and remains “hugely challenging”, the country’s spending watchdog has warned.

Stephen Boyle, the Auditor General for Scotland, said more than 100,000 homes and businesses had yet to be connected out of the 112,000 which are eligible.

In the north of Scotland, just 0.2 per cent of premises had been connected by the end of December. 

Opposition parties said the Scottish Government had left communities suffering with “stone age” connections.

Nicola Sturgeon promised in the SNP’s 2016 Holyrood manifesto to “deliver 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage” to every home and business in Scotland by spring 2021. 

However the resulting R100 programme, which was supposed to install 30Mbps+ connections to the remote rural areas, was beset by delays letting the contracts.

Undaunted, then SNP Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing promised to resign if the target date 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 2018.

But it was not until December 2019 that ministers signed deals with BT for the £83m Central Scotland and £133m South of Scotland elements.

Supposed to connect 32,216 and 20,740 premises respectively, the Central and South Scotland contracts had only connected 2,171 (7%) and 2,991 (14%) by the end of 2021.

Problems with the biggest of the three contract areas - the North lot - have been even worse.

Delayed by a legal challenge launched by a disgruntled rival bidder, the contract was only signed with BT in December 2020, with the number of premises involved not finalised until August 2021.

Of the 59,276 eligible premises, just 145 had been connected by December.

Take-up of a voucher scheme to help premises has also been pitiful, with the South, Central and North lots accounting for 327, 366 and 733 voucher applicants respectively. 

The Scottish Government has put £579m into R100, with the UK Government adding £33 and BT plc contributing £33m in capital costs, taking the overall bill to £645m.

The latest figures are included in an update on the R100 scheme published by Mr Boyle and Audit Scotland.

Although the Scottish Government has met its previous target to provide access to fibre broadband to 95% of premises by the end of 2017, connecting the final 5%, many in extremely remote rural areas, remains a struggle.

Audit Scotland said the Government had launched its broadband voucher scheme to help those needing interim cover in September 2020, but “after a slow start”, around 107,000 premises were still waiting to be connected under R100 at the end of 2021.

“Many of these are in the hardest to reach locations, with the majority in the North. Connecting these remaining premises will be challenging and expensive,” it said.

“Build in some areas will continue until 2026/27 which means some households and businesses may continue to miss out on a reliable connection until then. 

“Although options, such as the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme and further investment from the UK Gigabit scheme may help speed this up, this is potentially a long wait for some.

“Connecting the final premises will be hugely challenging. Many are in the hardest to reach locations with difficult terrain. Commercial coverage and technology is also constantly changing, as is the number of premises to be reached. 

“The Scottish Government will need to continue managing the contracts carefully to ensure BT plc. and its delivery partner Openreach, delivers to the current planned timescales, as well as monitoring wider commercial coverage.”

The average speed Scotland-wide to connect each home or business is £5,690.

Mr Boyle added: "The pandemic has shown that a fast and reliable broadband connection is an essential utility. But there is still work to do to connect or upgrade around 100,000 homes and businesses as part of the Scottish Government's plans. 

"Infrastructure work, particularly in the Highlands and Islands will continue for a number of years. These are properties in the hardest to reach locations with difficult terrain, making it a huge challenge for the government and its partners." 

Caithness Liberal Democrat MP Jamie Stone said: "My constituents are fed up with being lumbered with stone age broadband connections.

"The SNP promised to deliver access to high-speed broadband to every household and business in Scotland by 2021. That promise was junked at the first opportunity.

"A reliable internet connection is an essential part of modern life. It has a major part to play in everything from education to starting a business. Both of our governments need to stop treating the Far North as an afterthought."

Tory MSP Rachael Hamilton said: “The SNP have miserably failed to match their rhetoric with delivery when it comes to broadband.

“They were nowhere near meeting their targets set for the end of last year and now a shamefully high number of our rural and remote communities will have to wait many more years to be connected.

“The SNP slashed the digital infrastructure budget in recent years, which was destined to cause further delays. They promised big but have severely under-delivered on this flagship programme.

“As we recover from the pandemic, it is absolutely crucial that individuals and businesses are connected as quickly as possible.

“Right now, there is a real danger SNP Ministers are going to leave our rural and remote areas lagging behind even further due to a  complete lack of connectivity in these communities.”

Labour MSP Colin Smyth added: “This report is another slap down to the SNP’s beleaguered R100 programme. After years of delays and excuses, the programme is still struggling to deliver what was promised.

“The last two years have shown that reliable connectivity is a necessity, not a luxury – but for Scotland’s forgotten rural communities it’s been a case of super slow, not superfast broadband roll-out.

“As everything from work to services to education moves online, more than ever the Scottish Government needs to up its game and stop leaving people behind.

“Any more delays to this crucial programme would be yet another shameful betrayal of rural Scotland. The SNP-Green government must pull out every stop to get these high-speed connections in place for everyone as quickly as possible.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Excellent progress has been made in delivering complex digital infrastructure projects, including the highly successful Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme.

"The Scottish Government has connected nearly a million premises to faster broadband through public sector investment worth an estimated £311m.

“The projected completion date and cost of the R100 North contract reflects the scale of the engineering challenge of delivering full-fibre broadband to Scotland’s hardest-to-reach communities.

“We welcome Audit Scotland’s recognition of significant improvements in broadband coverage and speed, and their acknowledgment that R100 contracts are building in some of the most difficult terrain in the UK.

"As recognised by Audit Scotland, the higher costs in delivering R100 are partly due to exceeding the original superfast commitment by delivering an increase in the number of gigabit-capable fibre to the premises connections.”