Auditors issue warning over government’s 100% superfast broadband pledge

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The Scottish Government’s pledge for superfast broadband coverage across Scotland by 2021 will be “difficult” to deliver, a public finance watchdog has warned.

An Auditor General report found further investment may be needed on top of the initial £600 million and highlighted a lack of clarity over how 100% coverage of 30 megabit per second (Mb/s) speeds will be achieved.

The report praised the government for hitting its previous target to provide fibre broadband acess to 95% of premises by the end of 2017, saying without public investment only two-thirds would have access.

Overall connection speeds have increased across Scotland but around a quarter of rural areas cannot receive 10 Mb/s.

Auditors found up to March 2018, the Scottish Government and Highlands and Island Enterprise (HIE) had paid £259 million to BT for broadband roll-out.

Lower costs and higher take-up is expected to enable around 60,000 more premises to be reached than originally planned.

The report, prepared by Audit Scotland, recommends lessons are learned form the failure of the Community Broadband Scotland plan to deliver anticipated benefits for rural community broadband.

Just 13 of the 63 initiatives it helped finance were successful with a lack of specialist skills, poor communication and complex tendering requirements causing lengthy delays and failed procurements.

Community groups told auditors this has undermined their confidence in the Scottish Government and HIE to support rural broadband.

Further recommendations include publishing clear timescales by summer 2019 for the reaching 100 programme, establish clear contract management for the contracts and clear communication, especially for rural areas.

Fraser McKinlay, Audit Scotland director of Performance Audit and Best Value, said: “Fast, reliable internet access is now considered an essential part of everyday life.

“Good progress has been made to date but the toughest hurdle remains – to extend the benefits to everyone, particularly remote and rural communities.

“As well as being the toughest hurdle, it is not yet clear how the Scottish Government is going to fulfil its pledge to deliver superfast broadband to everyone by the end of 2021.”

Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, said: “Our 100% commitment is unmatched anywhere else in the UK.

“The report recognises it won’t be easy to deliver the commitment, but we have backed our commitment with a record £600 million (96.5% funding by Scottish Government) in initial funding for procurement of the Reaching 100 (or R100) percent programme and are currently in dialogue with three suppliers.”

Sara Budge, Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme director, said: “It’s a fantastic achievement and, coupled with our innovation, we are extending our rural reach and driving speed uplifts further.

“It’s been a huge collective but very satisfying challenge. Over 900,000 homes and business across Scotland can now access fibre broadband thanks to the programme.”

Robert Thorburn, Openreach fibre partnership director, added: “We’re pleased the latest update from Audit Scotland has confirmed the success of the Digital Scotland rollout.

“It’s a massive civil engineering project benefiting hundreds of communities across the whole country, delivered on time and under budget.”

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