Broadband on track, but rural areas a challenge

Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland

Audit Scotland said the Scottish Government and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) are making good progress in widening access to high-speed broadband — but that extending coverage to rural areas remains a challenge.

“While 26 of Scotland’s 32 council areas have met contractual targets for fibre broadband coverage, the areas that remain are rural or remote, and are likely to need more complicated and costly engineering solutions,” said Audit Scotland in a report.

“Premises in rural areas also currently receive lower average speeds.

“The Scottish Government has much to do if its ambition for world class digital infrastructure is still to be achieved by 2020.

“This includes defining clearly what world class means and setting out plans for how it will be achieved.”

The Scottish Government wants everyone in Scotland to be able to access the internet at any time and on any device by 2020.

To help achieve this, BT was appointed to extend Scotland’s existing fibre broadband network in 2013 at a cost of £412 million.

Audit Scotland is monitoring the progress of the roll-out as well as the Scottish Government’s digital infrastructure vision.

In its report, Audit Scotland said 2.2 million out of 2.6 million premises across Scotland — about 86% — had access to fibre broadband by March 2016.

That’s 1% more than the Scottish Government’s original target. More than 500,000 of these premises gained access through the new contracts.

It said that assuming BT continued to meet its contractual targets, the Scottish Government could expect to meet its 95% coverage target by December 2017.

“But work has so far focused on easier to reach areas, and the remainder of the roll-out will be more challenging,” said the report.

The Scottish Government must also decide how it plans to spend a further £42 million available for extending broadband coverage outside of the contracts.

Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland said: “Fast, reliable internet access is increasingly essential for everyday life, so it’s encouraging to see good progress being made in rolling out fibre broadband.

“However, there is a lot still to be done by the Scottish Government if it is to achieve its vision of a world class digital infrastructure, particularly in improving download speeds in rural areas.

“It’s important that it continues to monitor the cost and progress of broadband rollout so that these communities aren’t excluded.”