More broadband project details needed

MYSTERY surrounds a Scottish Government project to roll out superfast broadband in the Borders, according to an SNP councillor.

Executive member for economic development, Stuart Bell, raised a number of issues as Scottish Borders Council decided to invest £8.4million into the Government’s Next Generation Broadband programme.

The funding will top up a commitment from Holyrood to roll out superfast broadband to 75 per cent of rural Scotland.

Presently, commercial firms have only placed or planned NGB coverage – providing download speeds of 24 megabites per second (mbps) or more – in 38 per cent of the Borders.

But Councillor Bell said there was still a lack of detail over who and how many homes and businesses will benefit ahead of the June 2013 procurement announcement.

Mr Bell said: “We don’t actually know, at this time, exactly where our money will take the level of coverage locally.

“It will be over 75 per cent, but is it 80, 85 or 90 per cent? We don’t know, and most businesses I encounter are not interested in high-level statements about £8m, £20m or £40m being committed, or are interested in abstract percentages.

“They want to know who is going to get what speed of broadband, and when.

“The problem is that we will not know that until June 2013 when the Scottish Government expect to announce who has won the bid to install the Next Generation Broadband.

“The detail of the coverage is dependant on who wins the contract. I think this is unsatisfactory.”

Mr Bell is pushing for the South of Scotland Alliance – made up of SBC and Dumfries and Galloway Council – to now be at the head of the queue for installation of the NGB.

He added: “Together, the two local authorities got ahead of the game last year and put together a team to set up a South of Scotland Broadband Project.

“If this route had been pursued we would have agreed a local contract already, and could now be starting on the installation.

“But the two authorities were persuaded by the Scottish Government to wait until the other parts of Scotland caught up and to include the contract for the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway as part of the larger Scottish contract.

“It means we lost a year.”

Despite SBC and the Scottish Government’s NGB pledge, the new service is unlikely to benefit the remotest of the Borders communities,

It has led Selkirkshire councillor Michelle Ballantyne to call for commercial firms to invest in broadband infrastructure in well-populated areas, to allow public money to be spent upgrading internet speeds in rural locations.

The Conservatives’ leader at Newtown, who lives in the Ettrick Valley, said: “We have to make sure public money is not spent on improving services which commercial companies then benefit from.

“What we should be saying to private companies is that they improve the network in cities and towns which would allow public cash to be invested in broadband in remote rural places.

“There is plenty of businesses in places such as Galashiels and Selkirk for these companies to invest in broadband and still make money.

“There should be some obligations placed on the private companies – we should not be subsidising firms that are profitable.”

The Scottish Government’s finance and sustainable growth secretary agrees, according Councillor Bell, who met John Swinney at a South of Scotland Alliance conference before Christmas.

Mr Bell said: “The projects currently under way will still leave the most remote communities, for example the hamlets in upper Tweedsmuir, up the Ettrick, Yarrow or Teviot valleys, without this new superfast service.

“Whilst the commitment is that everyone will get 2mbps, which for some remote settlements is an improvement, the 24mbps capacity will not extend to the most remote communities.

“The Scottish Government has committed £5million seed funding to help find approaches to meet the digital needs of these remote communities.

“But that £5m is across all of Scotland and I am sure it is not enough.

“The possible solution is for communities to work on a co-operative basis to develop their own custom solutions. SBC has already supported two projects with financial backing from Leader funding in Whitsome in Berwickshire and in the Ettrick Valley.”