INVESTMENT in Scotland’s digital network is vital to prevent rural areas of the country becoming isolated, according to a leading think-tank.
Reform Scotland has urged the Scottish Government to create a “fit for purpose” network, which it claims would cost less than a third of the Edinburgh trams scheme.
In a report released today, the organisation calls for the appointment of a dedicated minister to ensure the nation is a leader in the digital revolution.
The estimated cost of improving the digital infrastructure – an estimated £200 million – is described as a key part of Scotland’s “economic and cultural” future.
The report, entitled Digital Power, emphasises that any new strategy must cater for the whole of the country and not just the major cities. It recommends that by 2015, no villages or towns with more than 1,000 households should be more than two miles from a fibre backhaul network. Smaller communities, meanwhile, should be within 20 miles of the nearest network.
“Digital connectivity is to the present day what railways and canals were to the first industrial revolution,” the report says. “But it is important that those in poorer or remote areas, who may already suffer from social exclusion, do not become further isolated.”
While major telecommunications firms, such as BT and Virgin Media, are investing in high-speed broadband in Edinburgh and Glasgow, many parts of the country have access to an unreliable service. Inverness Chamber of Commerce has even warned that poor broadband speeds in the Highlands could mean businesses lose out to competitors.
The report’s authors, including Stuart Gibson, former head of telecoms and media at HBOS, believe the cost of upgrading Scotland’s digital network to the level required would not be as expensive as might be imagined.
“Taking into account available data and research, as well as discussion with operators, consultants and academics, we believe a good deal could be achieved within a budget of around £200m,” the report states.
That cost, the authors point out, is only a third of the estimated cost of the Edinburgh tram network, or a tenth of the overall cost of a new Forth road bridge.
It calls on the government to commission a detailed analysis of possible funding options, including private and European Union investment.
With no existing co-ordinated plans for Scotland’s current digital network, Reform Scotland believes a ministerial team with specific responsibility for designing, implementing and monitoring a digital blueprint for Scotland should be set up.
“A fit-for-purpose electronic communications infrastructure must be at the heart of Scotland’s social, economic and cultural future,” it adds.
“It would be a core remit of the digital Scotland minister to engage all our public bodies to contribute towards a digital Scotland plan and to create a platform for digital development which is both expansive and inclusive.”
Ben Thomson, the chairman of Reform Scotland and another of the report’s authors, added: “What we are proposing is ministerial leadership in establishing a clear and ambitious strategy which involves much greater co-ordination in developing the various strands of digital policy and a phased commitment to provide high-speed broadband coverage to the vast majority of premises in Scotland.”
• There is no co-ordinated plan for Scotland’s digital network.
• There should be ministerial leadership to establish a ‘clear and ambitious’ strategy.
• The network could be upgraded for £200m.
• The Scottish Government should commission an analysis of possible funding options.
• Access in rural areas must be improved, otherwise there will be a ‘society of unequal opportunity’.
• The importance of a strong, reliable digital network is to modern Scotland what railways and canals were to the first industrial revolution.