What lies ahead for superfast Internet access in the Scottish Borders? A rural region with growing businesses and bustling market towns, the Scottish Borders are a key area for investment in Internet infrastructure over coming years.
We’ve met with current Secretary of State for Scotland and Liberal Democrat MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, Michael Moore, to find out his views on plans and progress. With a strong focus on technology, Michael founded the 'Borders Digital Forum' with the aim of bringing together local people and industry experts to drive a successful digital switchover and improve broadband provision in the region.
How can we achieve better broadband in the Borders? Will the forthcoming railway line help to drive investment in broadband sooner? Michael Moore gives his thoughts on these questions and more in our interview below.
1. Border businesses now face an even longer period of being at a disadvantage to other regions of the country which do have access to fibre-optic broadband. What can be done about this?
I agree that poor broadband services is a key issue facing Border businesses and this is why, over a number of years, I have held the Borders Digital Forum to bring together local groups, businesses and the Council to discuss how we can best work together to bring better broadband to the area.
The UK Government is committed to addressing this issue by providing superfast broadband services to rural areas as part of its UK-wide programme. The Borders will benefit from access to higher speeds, as the UK Government invests £100.8m for broadband for Scotland alongside £79.5m from the Scottish Government which includes up to £25.5m of EU funds. The Scottish Government will decide how all of this funding is allocated and I understand that the ‘Rest of Scotland’ project (i.e. all of Scotland, except for the Highlands and Islands) is about to begin the procurement process. It is hoped that contracts will be signed with the successful broadband infrastructure supplier, by the summer.
The South of Scotland Alliance (SoSA), a partnership between Dumfries and Galloway Council, Scottish Borders Council and Scottish Enterprise, are working hard to ensure that the Borders benefits from this investment. They anticipate that the rollout of better broadband infrastructure will go to the larger market towns in the first instance but they are working locally on demand stimulation to make the case for the rollout to reach more remote areas in the first instance. The team is also engaging proactively with the procurement process and the Scottish Government to try and ensure that the South of Scotland is amongst the first areas to benefit from the roll-out. As local MP, I have been very encouraged by the team’s dedication to this project and I am hopeful that we will see a significant improvement in broadband provision in the Borders as a result.
2. Is the future of rural broadband 4G?
The 4G spectrum auction, currently being run by Ofcom, will see the arrival of 4G in the UK this summer. The wider availability of 4G will increase the use of mobile broadband but it is likely that 4G will remain complementary to fixed broadband because it will not have the same capacity for large volumes of data. The 4G auction also includes an obligation on one of the 800 MHz spectrum licenses to provide a mobile broadband service for indoor reception to at least 95% of Scotland. This means the auction will have an important role to play in delivering a decent 4G service to rural areas.
3. What funding has already been approved for better broadband in the Borders and what can be done to increase the current funding?
On the 13 December 2012, Scottish Borders Council agreed to commit £8.4m capital funding to be used to provide the maximum coverage of Next Generation Broadband in Scottish Borders. It will not be possible to fund 100% coverage across the South of Scotland with the public sector funding available for the National rollout outlined above – the Scottish Government’s coverage target for superfast broadband is 75% – but once the SoSA Project Team know what areas will be covered, they have said they will work with the remaining areas to identify potential sources of funding to achieve 100% coverage of at least 2 mbps.
4. Border businesses are being charged obscene construction charges to enable fibre, is there any financial assistance for business owners?
The Scottish Government have said that as they undertake the procurement process to support the delivery of superfast services with the funding from themselves, the UK Government and the EU, they will ensure the specific needs of businesses and consumers in respective regions are met. As local MP, I am urging them to deliver on this pledge and ensure that businesses in the Borders benefit from a better service as a result of this investment. In terms of SoSA and Scottish Borders Council, they have said they do not currently have plans to provide financial assistance for business owners at this stage.
5. Will the construction of the new railway stimulate the appetite of the major network providers to take the Borders seriously to implement an adequate network?
I have no doubt that the railway will attract new businesses to the area and boost the businesses already here and in the long-term, encourage greater investment by broadband network providers. However, bearing in mind that the railway construction is only just about to start it is probable that the current Next Generation Broadband roll-out won't be strongly influenced by