Speech : Digital Strategy

Rhoda's speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

3 November 2016

I do not have a clue what G5 is, but I know what 5G is.

I think that there was a typo in our amendment, for which I apologise, but I am sure that that will not stop the chamber supporting it, as it makes a lot of sense.

The debate gives us an opportunity to feed our views and priorities into the refresh of the digital strategy.

There is little in the motion that can be disagreed with, but we need not only to have an agreed vision but to be in a position to make it a reality.

As the Audit Scotland report makes clear, the Scottish Government has to do better at providing access to the digital economy in areas where there is market failure or progress is slow.

We will continue to hold the Government to account on its performance in that regard and we urge a better and faster response.

Everyone, regardless of where they live and what their income is, should have access to technology to allow them to access work and information.

They should also be able to participate in the social interaction that digitisation can bring and which we take for granted to a great extent. [Interruption.] I hate to point out that the Presiding Officer’s phone has gone off.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: It is so unkind of you to mention that, as it will be in the Official Report.

Well, it happens to the best of us, and I am the best of us.

Rhoda Grant: You are obviously switched on digitally. Although you might not be part of it, Presiding Officer, we have a digital divide.

In affluent urban areas, the market has provided, and continues to provide, the infrastructure that is required.

Our cities are quickly becoming digitised in the business sectors and the leafy suburbs, with 4G and now 5G being rolled out, as well as dedicated city services and free wi-fi in public places.

However, unfortunately, our rural areas and our deprived inner-city areas are being left behind.

As more and more information, goods and services are digitised, those of us who do not have access will be further disadvantaged.

Benefit applications, job searches and the like are all on digital platforms, and people who do not have access have less chance of changing their lot or getting the benefits that they are entitled to.

A lack of connectivity means that our farmers are getting up in the wee small hours not to milk the cows but to try to submit their common agricultural policy payment claim while no one else is using the connection.

At a time when we face depopulation in our islands and remote areas, digital access has never been more important and required.

Our vision is of a digital economy that breaks down barriers and makes us an inclusive society that leaves no one behind, regardless of where they live.

We agree with the Scottish Government that telecommunications companies must play their part. They make huge profits from rolling out infrastructure in lucrative markets, and they must reinvest some of those profits in the areas where markets fail.

There must also be a role for the Government when the market fails.

Digital connectivity is a necessity not only for the individual but for service delivery, not least in health and social care services.

We need to make sure that what the Government provides is as good as what the market provides and that it can be easily upgraded so that areas do not fall behind again when technology changes.

Technology is changing and we need to make sure that all installations are future proofed.

New technologies are being developed. Last week, I learned of li-fi, which can provide solutions in hardto-reach areas as well as making others even more connected.

I find it hard to imagine that every light bulb will act as a digital router. In deprived urban areas, the infrastructure is as poor as that in rural areas, because the communications companies do not believe that the people who live there will be able to afford to buy their services.

However, even if people have the infrastructure on their doorstep, that does not mean that they have access.

We must find ways of enabling everyone in our society to access digital technology so that they can access health and social care services and so that they can be introduced to economic opportunities.

Connectivity comes at a cost.

People need money to buy a computer and to pay for a broadband connection.

When someone is struggling to keep the roof over their head and food on their table, connectivity is not always their top priority.

Some time ago, I visited the citizens advice bureau in Wick, which had recognised the problem.

It had set up a room with second-hand computers that the CAB had been able to get its hands on, which allowed its clients to access the internet for jobs and benefit searches.

That is helpful, but technology moves on.

We all expect to be online all the time, and service provision is built around that level of connectivity.

Therefore, those of us who do not have that level of connectivity are left behind. We are in the middle of a second enlightenment whose future will be digital—from reading a book to having our health monitored.

The internet of things, which puts information at our fingertips, is growing.

Before we get there, we can know how warm our house is and turn up the heating.

The opportunities are limited only by our imaginations, yet knowledge and skills in our digital world are limited.

We need schools to teach digital skills as part of their basic education, from the youngest primary school child to those who are leaving with advanced qualifications.

Such skills need to be taught as part of every subject in our colleges and universities and as part of lifelong learning and continuing professional development in the workplace.

The speed of change is rapid and we need to make sure that our workforce keeps up to date.

We need complex programming skills, but we also have to understand the technology.

The farmer who can tell immediately which of their animals needs their attention from looking not at their fields but at their computer screen tells us that no area or line of work will not need such skills, so we need to make sure that we have them.

Our amendment highlights the fact that we require to make progress urgently and that we need to sweep away the digital divide.

We offer the amendment as a positive contribution, but we are also concerned about the speed of our progress.

Other small countries are way ahead of us and we must catch up and get ahead.

Being more connected would provide work and life opportunities that we can only guess at, while to be left behind would be a catastrophe.

We will support the Government to provide a worldleading digital infrastructure, but we will also hold it to account should it fail.

I move amendment S5M-02281.3, to insert after “mobile infrastructure”:

“; recognises that all people in Scotland must have access to affordable high-speed broadband and G5 mobile access and the skills to use them both at home and in the workplace; calls on the Scottish Government to close the digital divide by monitoring levels of access and ensuring that everyone has a level of connectivity that is fit for the 21st century, regardless of their geographical location or income”.