MSP concerned about lack of clarity on UK Government’s broadband scheme

7 September 2017

A UK Government Minister is being accused of dragging his feet over a decision to extend a broadband scheme which could help Highlands and Islands communities receive a better service.

Minister of State for Digital, Matt Hancock, replied to Labour MSP Rhoda Grant who asked about the future of a subsidy which is helping an Inverness-shire community tap in to high speed broadband.

Stratherrick and Foyers Community Trust raised the issue of the future of the Better Broadband Subsidy Scheme with Mrs Grant when she popped in on the group’s drop-in session in Gorthleck in July.

Trust members were anxious because the future of the scheme, developed by the UK Government, was unclear past the end of this year.

Mr Hancock said:

“While the current end date for the scheme is the end of December, I am discussing with the Treasury whether this scheme will be extended and its relationship with the Universal Service Obligation (USO)*.

"However, I would urge you and the Stratherrick and Foyers Community to apply for a voucher code now, rather than waiting for the deadline.”

Mrs Grant said:

“We have little more than four months until this scheme ends and the Minister has admitted he hasn’t made a decision yet.

"Moreover, there is no indication as to when that decision will be made.

"Reading between the lines it doesn’t seem that hopeful that it will be extended.

“Communities such as Stratherrick and Foyers could be hit if the subsidy was not extended and they need to plan ahead, even if the Minister doesn’t seem able to!

“I will be asking Labour’s Shadow Scottish Secretary, MP Lesley Laird, if she can follow this up at Westminster.”

Stratherrick and Foyers Community Trust plans to spread high speed broadband across the district and has agreed a scheme with company Cromarty Firth Wireless Networks to allow households to get on-line by a series of relay points.

The organisation’s drop-in session during the summer gave more information to locals about its new scheme.

Under the Government’s scheme, £350 is available to people to help tap into to better broadband but if it is no longer there after December 2017 that would hit the money available to Stratherrick and Foyers local scheme.

“Remote and rural areas are still at the back of the queue for connections and that more than half of homes in some parts of rural Scotland are still struggling with very slow internet speeds,” said Mrs Grant.

“Rural areas need broadband to compete in the global market place and to safeguard against population decline.”

The Government scheme sets out to provide access to subsidised broadband installation to homes and businesses that are unable to access a broadband service with a download speed of at least 2 Mb per second.

Households and businesses that are eligible to take advantage of the scheme will be provided with a unique code that will cover most of the cost of the installation and commissioning of a basic broadband service including any necessary equipment.

The code does not have a specific fixed value but when used to obtain a basic broadband service installation/commissioning from a registered supplier, will reduce the total cost by up to £350.

The USO was set out in the Digital Economy Act 2017 which received Royal Assent on 27 April. The Act includes a mechanism that will enable the Government to establish a broadband USO, which will give people the legal right to request an affordable broadband connection of at least 10Mbps. Ofcom and the Department have set out a range of options for implementing the obligation and are embarking on a consultation now.