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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 07 May 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Business Motion, Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill, Committee Announcement, Decision Time, Scottish Gigabit Cities


Contents


Scottish Gigabit Cities

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-16039, in the name of Bruce Crawford, on Scottish gigabit cities. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

I am out to learn stuff, Mr Crawford.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the £200 million of investment from CityFibre to roll-out a new, modern and future-proof 1 Gbps Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) broadband network in Scotland as part of the Scottish Gigabit City Programme; notes that FTTH areas have been announced in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Stirling as well as a £60 million investment in expanding the core fill-fibre network in Glasgow; understands that construction is under way in Stirling, with 180 km of new network set to pass nearly every home in the city; understands that this infrastructure development in the Gigabit cities will support future 5G connectivity, help households unlock the benefits of smart technology, spark economic growth by opening up business opportunities and make them among the best-connected places in Europe, and commends everyone involved with this.

17:51  

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

I am always willing to teach you, Presiding Officer.

I sincerely thank my MSP colleagues who have supported the motion, enabling me to bring the debate to the chamber. I also thank those who have stayed behind this evening to listen to the debate.

I can safely say that having an internet connection is not what it used to be. Do members remember the early days of dial-up? Well, it was not that long ago. Do members remember the falling out with family members who simply wanted to talk on the land line but could not do so because we could not use the internet and the land line at the same time?

Gone is the internet of steam and wood. The average family home is now much quieter and the internet much faster. We are wirelessly connected to the internet, not just through our personal computers but through our televisions, our tablets, our games consoles—I imagine that the Presiding Officer is on her games console every night—and even our lights and our central heating and security systems. The technology has brought us together and made shopping, booking a holiday and finding recipes and do-it-yourself hints much faster and easier—at least for most of us, Presiding Officer, given the conversation that we had earlier.

However, it is natural that, with the increasing demand for the internet to power our lives, the demand for faster and stronger connection has also grown. Members can imagine my delight, therefore, when CityFibre announced that it would embark on a project that would deliver ultrafast broadband to almost every household in the city of Stirling. As a result, Stirling has the potential to transform into a world-leading digital city, as one of the first cities in the United Kingdom to benefit from CityFibre’s fibre-to-the-premises programme.

The ambition of the partnership between Stirling Council and CityFibre is to enable Stirling to become the first gigabit city in the UK, and I like that. Gold-standard, full-fibre connectivity can help to ensure that Stirling is at the forefront of digital innovation. It can provide the catalyst to build on the Stirling city region deal, energising the digital district plans. The applications and benefits of gigabit-speed internet connectivity are almost endless. It will provide significant comparative advantage for the small and medium-sized enterprise sector, as well as improved inward investment potential.

The city’s existing 24km full-fibre network, which was launched in 2017 to connect the city’s schools, libraries and community venues, will expand citywide to reach nearly every home and business in Stirling. The first homes already have access to gigabit-speed broadband services of up to 1000 megabits per second, and the first businesses will soon be able to connect and enjoy the same advantages. That is what we call going at full speed.

CityFibre’s £2.5 billion project will deliver the technology to the doors of people across 5 million premises in the UK. There will be more than £200 million of investment into Scotland alone, with Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Stirling all set to benefit from 1 gigabit per second, ultrafast broadband speeds.

Glasgow will also see investment, expanding the network to serve public sector and business sites. Inverness, Fort William, Thurso and Wick will begin their full-fibre journey under the programme, with more than 150 public sector sites to be connected.

Stirling city alone will see £10 million of investment from CityFibre. When complete, the project will serve around 18,000 Stirling properties, which will have the potential to connect to FTTP broadband.

Faster broadband also means smoother and faster ways to run modern-day businesses. The infrastructure’s impact alone will result in an estimated £6 million boost in the value of the local Stirling economy, with a further £8 million boost to the local Stirling economy as a result of activity from new and emerging businesses in the area.

Full fibre also unlocks the potential of modern healthcare technology. I have seen for myself some of the new and innovative ways that patients could, for example, monitor their own blood pressure and send live updates to their general practitioner. It is the future. Such technologies can be hugely beneficial in helping to diagnose, treat and support patients. It is safe to say that I am quite excited about what the new infrastructure will unlock for my constituents, as well as for people in various places across Scotland.

Full-fibre investment projects such as CityFibre’s in Stirling are, of course, complemented by the Scottish Government’s target of ensuring access to superfast broadband for each and every premises in Scotland.

Despite telecoms being reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government is building on the success of the £400 million digital Scotland superfast broadband programme. The Scottish Government will invest a further £600 million to ensure that Scotland is at the forefront of digital connectivity through reaching 100 per cent of premises in Scotland.

Based on the latest figures that I have available, 89.4 per cent of premises in the Stirling area can now access speeds of 30 megabits per second and above. In fact, an incredible 95 per cent of Stirling properties in total have access to the fibre network, albeit that not every property can access superfast broadband speeds yet.

BT Openreach should also be recognised for the substantial part that it has played in this achievement. Yes, it is wholly understandable that private investment in this arena will find the more densely populated areas more attractive. That is why the Scottish Government’s R100 programme, which helps to reach the final properties that are not connected, is so vital. That is particularly true in rural areas.

The operation in Stirling has been a fantastic example of multiple organisations working hard together to deliver something that will truly transform people’s lives. I commend the work of CityFibre, Stirling Council, Forth Housing Association Ltd and countless others that have been involved. I look forward to the further roll-out of ultrafast broadband in Stirling in the coming weeks.

We are on the verge of delivering the world-class infrastructure that is needed for the fourth industrial revolution. We now need to ensure that Scotland is able to exploit it to the full, for both economic and social gain.

17:58  

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I am very pleased to be speaking in Bruce Crawford’s members’ business debate. I know that Mr Crawford sees the installation of full-fibre broadband as a bit of a race between Aberdeen and Stirling, which he hopes will be the first to be fully finished with full-fibre broadband. I hope that I will show otherwise.

The motion for debate is not dissimilar to motion S5M-15736, which I lodged on 6 February this year. I did not lodge it for debate, although I probably should have.

Aberdeen is the first city in Scotland to receive next generation full-fibre broadband as part of CityFibre’s national fibre-to-the-premises roll-out, in exclusive partnership with Vodafone in Aberdeen. There is no doubt that the rapid growth of data consumption is putting increasing pressure on the copper infrastructure. Thankfully, Aberdeen will join the ranks of some of the best digitally connected cities in the world.

It is interesting to note that Aberdeen was chosen as the first Scottish city for FTTP because of its strong tech sector. Aberdeen’s full-fibre journey began in March 2015—I think that that happened in January 2017 in Stirling—when CityFibre launched proposals for a fibre network, initially of 80km, to serve the local business community. Businesses began to be connected from June 2015 and, in June 2017, the proposal was extended to 100km as Aberdeen City Council began to connect its public sector estate, including schools, libraries, community centres and its offices. By December 2017, the network had been extended to 100 km, and by February 2018 CityFibre had announced its partnership with Vodafone to extend the network to reach nearly every home and business, which was started in July 2018. I think that it was in November of that year that roll-out commenced in Stirling.

This spring, the first homes go live with gigafast broadband. Since July, CityFibre has, on average, completed newly constructed fibre connections to 1,000 homes per month. In my constituency of Aberdeen South and North Kincardine, homes are live and receiving the service in Kincorth and Torry. Also connected, in the north of the city, are Cummings Park and Rosehill. In total, CityFibre has connected around 20,000 homes.

Those homes will receive speeds of 900Mbps, which will transform the way that customers can access and enjoy seamless connectivity when members of the family are streaming, downloading and playing all at once. I hope that it will stop arguments in some households. It will make remote working much more of a reality, because there will be instant and reliable access to the cloud. That is really important for business.

In my meetings with CityFibre, I have pressed the company to recognise that the boundaries of the City of Aberdeen go quite far out and include large rural areas. I have urged it to go out as far as possible, but, regrettably, there will be areas that will not be covered. They will have to come under the R100 programme.

On a snowy day, I went out to see the work on Leggart Terrace in my constituency; last Friday, when I went into my office, they were working just outside it. I have been impressed by the speed and tidiness of the work and the reinstatement of the pavements after trenches have been dug. I will wait to see whether that withstands frost, ice and snow. CityFibre has also been very attentive in answering my constituents’ queries. There has been only one complaint, but that was dealt with very quickly.

I look forward to seeing Scotland move up the league tables of digitally connected countries. Stirling will probably be the first city, but only because it is smaller.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

There is a wee friendly feud going on.

18:03  

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

I am delighted to speak in this evening’s debate, and I thank Bruce Crawford for bringing it to the chamber. I declare an interest as a director of CMS Broadband Ltd, which is a firm that is based in my constituency. As the Scottish Conservative spokesperson on the digital economy, as well as a member who represents a very rural constituency, it is fair to say that fibre broadband roll-out is one of my top priorities.

Bruce Crawford’s motion mentions the investment by CityFibre. I had a very positive meeting with the company last year in Parliament. Its seminar, “Building Scotland’s Full Fibre Future” laid out an exciting vision for Scotland’s digital future. It cannot be denied that digital is now at the heart of everything that we do in our daily lives. We must ensure that Scotland is at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution, as we have been at the forefront of other revolutions.

I was at an event in Parliament last week, hosted by the HAS Technology Group. Part of that event was about how data will play a significant role in facilitating healthy ageing. In Dumfries and Galloway, Loreburn Housing Association is already achieving results with its advanced risk modelling for early detection—or ARMED, as it is commonly known—which helps residents to adopt technology that helps to predict the risk of falls and enables faster support. Over a six-month period, there has been a 25:1 saving to spend ratio, with people who use the ARMED technology having had zero falls. In ARMED, we have a perfect example of how technology is working to the benefit of the people who live in our communities.

We are racing into the fourth industrial revolution—a digital revolution that has, unlike the others, the potential to help to regenerate the natural environment, and potentially to undo the damage of previous industrial revolutions. However, as well as having the potential to bridge the gap between those who have and those who have not, especially in rural areas, it also has the potential to widen that gap indefinitely if it is not rolled out quickly and universally.

CityFibre states that deploying gigabit-capable and reliable digital connectivity across a community to consumers, business, the public sector and mobile consumers will transform and future proof that local economy. With potential benefits of over £2 billion each in productivity, innovation and new businesses, the boost to our digital infrastructure must continue apace, so it is pleasing to see the work that is under way in Stirling is continuing to expand infrastructure into consumer premises, rather than just to businesses and public sector contracts.

BT rightly points out that because of Scotland’s geography and population density, mobile infrastructure continues to be a problem, particularly in rural areas; 4G is not a reality for many of my rural constituents, so that is already giving an advantage to more urban areas. Indeed, in some parts, there is little or no mobile signal. However, the reality for our cities is that we must develop 5G technology as quickly as possible—EE has plans to introduce it in Edinburgh and Glasgow this year. That will allow businesses to deliver goods and services in ways they cannot, at the moment.

I always argue that that should be done in the most remote and rural areas, because that is where the greatest savings can be made and the greatest impacts would be. There is an analogy with how Dumfries and Galloway Council rolled out its LED lights project. LED lights are cheaper to run and they last longer, so when the council decided to roll out its new low-light-pollution LED units, it first installed them furthest from the lighting depot. There were immediate savings in terms of servicing lights, so the spend-to-save policy had an immediate effect on the budget of the lighting department.

I argue that the same would happen with provision of 5G networks, with smart home-care technology such as I mentioned meaning fewer call-outs of health and social care professionals, and fewer call-outs of the ambulance service to remote rural areas. It is a no-brainer. Regeneris Consulting Ltd’s report states that full fibre could unlock £28 billion-worth of 5G technology developments. To put that in context, I point out that that is double the health budget for this coming financial year.

Tonight’s debate will, I am sure, be largely positive, which is not always the case when it comes to digital infrastructure debates in the chamber. I commend companies like CityFibre, but they must be fully supported by the Scottish Government. I take the opportunity to ask the minister when we will get R100. I am absolutely behind it—it will be transformational for rural areas—but when is it likely to be up and running?

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

Will the member give way?

Finlay Carson

I certainly will.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No—you cannot. You have seconds left.

Finlay Carson

Too late.

Debates such as this will become commonplace as the digital revolution shapes our economy in the future. Let us hope that we seize the opportunities that are available to us.

18:08  

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I, too, congratulate Bruce Crawford on securing the debate, and on highlighting the importance of a number of Scotland’s cities and city regions that are leading the digital revolution.

If data is the feedstock of the new economy, digital infrastructure to send and receive vast quantities of data at the highest possible speeds is as important in the online world as transport infrastructure is to movement of people and goods.

The Aberdeen city region has been one of the first to grasp the opportunity and challenge of ultrafast connectivity and, as Maureen Watt said, Aberdeen is leading the way in extending full next-generation fibre to the premises—FTTP—which is being delivered by a partnership of CityFibre and Vodafone, with an investment of £40 million.

CityFibre says that

“Aberdeen was chosen as the first Scottish city in this FTTP roll-out”

not just

“because of the community’s strong tech sector”,

which has been mentioned, but because of

“the council’s forward-looking commitment to smart city initiatives, and the strength of its support for the project.”

Those three elements—engagement by business, a forward-looking local council and strong buy-in with investment by the public and private sectors—will be important for other cities and regions, too.

Information technology in Aberdeen has grown strongly in recent years—first as a by-product of the energy industry and then, during the downturn of the past five years, as an alternative to it. Data analysts and other skilled workers who were laid off from the oil and gas industry soon found other industries that were keen to take them on or, in many cases, they set up in business for themselves.

Aberdeen City Council and its partners were quick to recognise the urgent need to diversify the local and regional economies, and to embrace digital infrastructure as one of the smartest ways of doing that. Aberdeen’s gigabit city initiative, which was launched as early as 2015, aimed to create an 80km full-fibre network to serve new and existing businesses.

The Aberdeen city region deal followed in 2016, which brought on board the Scottish and UK Governments and established Opportunity North East to represent the private sector in working with Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council. Aberdeen City Council then extended plans for the network to 100km by connecting public buildings across the city from 2017, with Scottish Government support. That strategic public investment helped to anchor deployment of fibre in the city and gave some certainty to the private investors who later came forward. It was also a powerful signal of the council’s support for the city to go further.

That takes us to last year’s announcement. The aim is to deliver FTTP to thousands more homes and businesses through an expanded city-wide network of up to 880km. As we have heard, construction began last summer and, across the city, the first homes have already been connected. That means full fibre not just from the exchange to the street cabinet, but from the street cabinet to every individual home or business that it serves. That will deliver ultrafast speeds, virtually unlimited bandwidth and a high standard of reliability.

Some technological advances in recent decades have become obsolete within a few short years. Nobody can know what has not yet been invented, but gigabit connectivity is likely to put Aberdeen and our other gigabit cities in a very strong place for decades to come. That is good news for existing businesses. As well as making those cities great places to start up new businesses, it provides lots of other opportunities, from online GP consultations, which Bruce Crawford mentioned, to remote monitoring of vulnerable people who live alone, to online learning opportunities in schools, colleges and universities. It also provides a solid foundation for Aberdeen’s next-century post-oil economy by delivering the world-class and worldwide connectivity that is essential for the city and region to diversify and grow.

18:12  

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I thank Bruce Crawford for bringing the debate to the chamber. We have talked about broadband and connectivity issues many times, and it has been interesting to hear some of the perspectives from around the country. Those of us who are lucky enough to have good broadband connectivity can take it for granted, but even in my area of Motherwell and Wishaw, which is very urban, I am constantly frustrated because new housing estates are still being built without being supplied with the best connectivity; there are new estates in my area that do not have a speed that is satisfactory for the people who live and work there.

Our homes are littered with devices—my home is literally littered with phones, tablets, notepads, PCs and smart TVs, although I have resisted Alexa, because I am the fount of all knowledge in my house. There is no doubt that the prevalence of such devices is increasing in our lives. As we get more smart technology in the appliances that we have in the environment of our houses, the requirement for good broadband connectivity will grow. The internet of things is upon us. As the Scottish Government rolls out the wi-fi LoRa network and we have more sensors throughout Scotland, we will have more opportunities to monitor and change behaviours in our environments. Such smart connectivity could regulate air pollution in cities by diverting traffic to other areas or by letting people know where car parking spaces are available, which would help me greatly when I visit the cities in our country. It could also help by monitoring things such as restaurant bookings and providing information to people directly on their mobile devices.

It is certainly something that we should be embracing and we should be making the investment that is needed in broadband networks. Such investment is essential if the Scottish economy is to keep pace with an increasingly globalised and interconnected world.

I pay tribute to the Scottish Council for Development and Industry’s publication “Automatic ... For the People?”, which was produced in conjunction with the Scottish Government and BT. The publication shows that practically every area of our lives will be affected by new technologies, including artificial technology and robotics, and that in order to take best advantage of that—for all the reasons that were discussed by Finlay Carson and Lewis Macdonald in terms of looking after people in their own homes and supporting people who want to stay in their homes—we need to be investing.

However, that does not paint the full picture. Only 6 per cent of UK properties have access to full-fibre broadband. I know that Mr Crawford called it the gold standard, which is not a phrase that he coined but has often been used to describe it. I find that a bit strange, because I thought that the whole point was to get the metal out of the system and make it full fibre, but there we have it. It is a strange way to describe full-fibre broadband access, but it seems to be the parlance that is being used. We know that many homes, although they have fibre optics available to them, still have the copper cables that do not hold the same capacity as fibre-optic cables and that is why the project and the work that is being done in some of our cities are so important.

There have been many mentions of rural areas in our constituencies, but it is also important to mention Inverness, Fort William, Thurso and Wick, where the work is being rolled out to some public sector sites. Of course, we all want to work to that standard throughout Scotland so that all our communities can benefit from the investment.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before I call Gordon Lindhurst, I point out that things are a little more relaxed in members’ business debates and, if a member presses their request-to-speak button, there is the opportunity to include them. So, Mr Lindhurst will not be the last speaker in the open debate; he will be followed by Tom Arthur.

18:17  

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

I join in the consensus of thanks to Bruce Crawford for bringing the debate to the chamber. The issue is particularly important to the city of Edinburgh, which is in the Lothian region that I represent. Edinburgh is, of course, included in the Scottish gigabit city programme.

This investment will help Edinburgh, which is an ambitious digital city, and will ensure that we join some of the most digitally connected cities across the world. It is estimated that a similar €600 million investment in 1994 brought a €1.8 billion return to the city of Stockholm, where successful start-ups Spotify and Skype originated. Edinburgh also has a proud track record in that area, being home to digital start-ups such as Skyscanner that have developed into world-leading companies.

That Edinburgh and the surrounding region already have solid foundations in the data sector is evidenced by the exciting future that the city has ahead of it. UK and Scottish Government funding towards the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal aims to establish the region as the data capital of Europe. The aim is to bring together key partners in the city—

Willie Coffey

Will the member give way?

Gordon Lindhurst

Certainly.

Willie Coffey

Does the member support Scotland being taken out of the digital single market, given the importance of the digital agenda to the Scottish economy?

Gordon Lindhurst

The beauty of the digital world is that we are all part of it, whatever the politicians decide about other things.

Turning to something that I have talked about in previous debates, I note that Edinburgh is pioneering work in areas such as agri-tech in order to transform agri-food systems across the world and achieve food and environmental security. Fast and reliable internet access is therefore vital for a city and region such as Edinburgh and the south-east, which have the ambition to be a leader in data.

Edinburgh’s existing fibre network has already connected businesses and the public sector estate to gigabit-speed internet, but the extension of that network will mean that it reaches almost every home and business in the city. Giving households access to the latest technology that will allow them to thrive is essential for the future of Edinburgh, not just in allowing people to access the latest entertainment using the most up-to-date technology, including buffer-free video calling and real-time gaming, but in giving the people and businesses of Edinburgh the tools to work and be competitive, including through increased productivity, which could be worth an estimated £86 million to Edinburgh businesses over the next 15 years.

By ensuring that homes in Edinburgh will soon benefit from the same speed of access as that in the public sector estate, we can ensure that Edinburgh’s children can make use of the latest innovative e-learning techniques both during and outside school hours. That will help to create the next digitally literate generation and maintain Edinburgh’s reputation as a globally competitive digital city.

Full fibre and 5G are at the heart of the UK’s industrial and digital strategies as we embark on the fourth industrial revolution, which will fundamentally change how we live and work. The investment by CityFibre to deliver fibre-to-the-home broadband puts Edinburgh at the forefront of that revolution, and I am happy to welcome it. It may help us to discover some of the unknown uninventeds that Lewis Macdonald referred to.

18:21  

Tom Arthur (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

I am grateful to you, Presiding Officer, for giving me the opportunity to contribute briefly.

I thank my colleague Bruce Crawford for securing this timely debate. His initials are BC, which makes me think of “before connectivity”. I am of a different generation. I was born around the time of the advent of the personal computer, and I was 10 or 11 years old when my father brought home our first modem. I was about 18 when we got broadband for the first time and about 21 when Facebook, Myspace and other social media platforms started to emerge. Therefore, I feel that I straddle the digital divide to an extent. I have clear memories of VHS and of having to programme video recorders, but I am equally comfortable with and fluent in using social media such as Facebook and in talking about the internet of things. In conversations with people who are genuine digital natives—those who were born this side of the millennium—I find it striking how fundamentally different their world view is from mine as a result of their having been immersed in the digital world.

The reason for that preamble is that it takes me on to the fourth industrial revolution, to which many contributors have referred. That is a neat term, and it is one to which we have become rather accustomed. We live in an age of slick marketing companies and public relations organisations, so terms such as “revolution” can sound a bit glib and we perhaps do not take them as seriously as we should. Connectivity will be at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution, and the gigabit cities project that CityFibre is engaged in will facilitate 5G technology, which will be the bedrock of that revolution.

I genuinely believe that it will be a revolution. It will be for good, as we have discussed, but it also has the potential for bad. It will be a revolution in the broader sense of an event of signal importance such as the agricultural revolution, the invention of cities, the industrial revolution and the splitting of the atom. How we live our lives and engage with each other could be changed in a way so profound that it is difficult for us to comprehend.

In the internet of things, every device that we use, from our phones, pacemakers, refrigerators and televisions to devices to monitor our pets and vehicles or our bikes and aircraft, will be connected and engaged, and all of them will be subject to the power of supercomputers employing techniques of big data analysis. There is the potential for tremendous good, but there is also the potential for tremendous abuse. When we politicians discuss the fourth industrial revolution and 5G, it is incredibly important that we talk about the benefits and the transformative effects, but we also need to talk about that other potential.

Finlay Carson

The member mentions the potential for bad. Does he recognise the importance of ensuring that the revolution spreads to every community and reaches right into our rural communities? The potential for people to be excluded is probably greater now than it has ever been, as a result of 5G. There could be a digital divide and division between socially isolated communities and cities.

Tom Arthur

I agree entirely with Finlay Carson. The divide might be geographic, but there is also a danger that it could be demographic. It is incredibly important that we address that and so ensure that the fruits of the fourth industrial revolution, which 5G will power and enable, can be enjoyed by everyone.

That becomes clear when we consider the challenges in how that data will be managed. Willie Coffey referred to the single digital market. I do not want my speech to be about Brexit, but it is very important that, whatever the UK’s future relationship is with the European Union and other trading entities and countries, we think very carefully about how we manage such data. The amount of data that we voluntarily pass on to organisations such as Google, Amazon and Apple will grow exponentially in the coming years and decades, so we must ensure that our regulatory frameworks and our control and democratisation of such data keep up with that rise. Failure to do so might lead to a situation in which, as Finlay Carson highlighted, not everyone can enjoy its benefits.

Bruce Crawford

Presiding Officer, may I intervene on Tom Arthur?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Because it is your debate, Mr Crawford, I will demur. It is not very often that I do so, but I will demur. Also, Mr Arthur, you did say at the beginning of your speech that it would be brief.

Bruce Crawford

Tom Arthur rightly mentions access to digital goods and services, which is what the European Union’s digital strategy is about. However, it is also about ensuring better access for consumers and businesses to online goods and services across the area, as well as building in protections, which Mr Arthur mentioned, to ensure that people across Europe are protected from the more difficult issues that that might produce. Being removed from the EU might therefore remove some of the protections that we would otherwise enjoy.

Tom Arthur

I agree absolutely. I do not wish to appear overly partisan, but, whatever happens with Brexit and our future relationship with the European Union, it is important that we talk about such difficult and challenging issues. There have been many conversations about the proposed backstop and other aspects, as well as various political intrigues, but it is important that we, in the Scottish Parliament, and others elsewhere give an airing to such issues, because they are fundamental. They are at the heart of what the European project is about. Regardless of what our future relationship with Europe might be, it would be a dereliction of duty on our part not to give those issues full scrutiny.

Presiding Officer, you have indulged me somewhat. I thank you for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I also thank Bruce Crawford for securing it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I was just thinking that these speeches are not 5G—they are very slow.

At last—I say that because I know that the organisers of events that will follow the close of business are waiting to start—I call Paul Wheelhouse to close the debate on behalf of the Government.

18:27  

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

I add my words of thanks to Bruce Crawford for bringing the motion to the chamber, and to colleagues from all parties who have contributed to what has been a lively debate. While I was sitting through the speeches, waiting for my opportunity to speak, I felt that the debate was showing the Parliament in a very good light, because we have heard very intelligent speeches from members from across the chamber on an important subject that is of interest to both rural and urban Scotland. I also thank you, Presiding Officer, for letting Tom Arthur speak; his contribution was a very worthwhile addition to the debate.

The debate has offered a great opportunity to discuss a subject that is perhaps less well covered in the general debate about broadband: the roll-out of commercial provision in our cities. At the same time, I agree whole-heartedly with Finlay Carson and others who want us to focus on ensuring that there are no new sources of digital divide in rural Scotland. I hope to come on to that aspect later in my speech.

Since taking the helm as Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, I have had many discussions with stakeholders, businesses and community representatives across Scotland, in which it has been made clear to me that there is a unanimous desire to make our country one of Europe’s most well connected. As several members have said, we will have an opportunity to do so in the years ahead of us, and to make cities such as Stirling, Aberdeen and Edinburgh digital world leaders. Although I appreciate that, across the chamber, there might be competition among members on that, I hope that all our cities will be able to meet that standard.

However, as I alluded to earlier, all too often, we forget that the provision of broadband is, first and foremost, a commercial matter. I therefore applaud CityFibre, and other commercial providers, for choosing to invest in Scotland. The Government is very grateful that they are doing so. As the motion in Mr Crawford’s name suggests, CityFibre has committed funds approaching £200 million to its fibre investments in Scotland, which is a significant figure. Governments, regulators and the wider public sector have an important part to play in creating an environment that attracts investment—I will touch on that shortly—but it is commercial investment that will drive world-class digital connectivity and the innovation that it enables across all aspects of our society and economy, as was mentioned by Finlay Carson, Clare Adamson and, latterly, Tom Arthur.

It is clear that CityFibre’s substantial investment in locations such as Stirling, through its gigabit cities programme, and the rapid deployment of its networks have delivered huge benefits for Scotland, driving value and choice for its customers in the private and public sectors, and helping cities such as Aberdeen to diversify their economy, as Lewis Macdonald and Maureen Watt alluded to. I know that back in 2017, the Scottish Government delivered £2 million to support Aberdeen City Council’s ambition to increase broadband speeds for key public buildings. CityFibre has delivered that connectivity, which has helped to pave the way for the deal with Vodafone that will see residents in Aberdeen enjoying gigabit-capable broadband.

I am pleased to say that CityFibre is one of a number of companies that has announced substantial commercial investment plans in Scotland in recent months. Openreach, Virgin Media and Hyperoptic are all investing in fibre, with others poised to enter the Scottish market. All are playing a key role in delivering the Scottish Government’s digital ambitions.

However, it is clear that not all of Scotland has benefited from that commercial investment. I agree with Finlay Carson, Clare Adamson and others that—despite telecoms being reserved—the Scottish Government is doing all that it can to make Scotland the best place for the telecommunications industry to invest in digital infrastructure.

We are taking a number of steps to incentivise industry. We have introduced rates relief on new fibre infrastructure for 10 years, which is double the UK Government’s commitment; we have relaxed planning legislation to make it easier for operators to deploy new infrastructure; we are developing proposals to extend permitted development rights to assist new projects; and, to pick up on Clare Adamson’s point, we are amending our building regulations to ensure a set standard for the in-building of new physical infrastructure, including digital infrastructure. I hope that that information is helpful to Clare Adamson.

We have also created a Scottish version of the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s street works toolkit, to support operators to navigate the complexities of road works across Scottish local authorities and avoid timely and costly deployment delays.

That all serves to demonstrate the extent to which we are making sure that Scotland is at the forefront of the digital revolution, despite telecoms being reserved, as I have mentioned. In that regard, Scotland has already come a long way. No matter what source is used, the evidence categorically demonstrates that Scotland has caught up dramatically with the rest of the UK and continues to do so, thanks in large part to the £400 million digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, which Bruce Crawford mentioned.

Without the programme, only 66 per cent of premises across the country were expected to have access to fibre broadband, and only 21 per cent coverage was expected in the Highlands. There were no commercial coverage plans at all for Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles—a point that is not lost on me as minister for the islands.

Indeed, Ofcom’s most recent “Connected Nations” report confirmed that, once again, Scotland has outperformed the UK as a whole on the deployment of new digital infrastructure over the previous 12 months and is closing the digital divide.

Taken in total, access to superfast broadband has now increased by more than 31 per cent in Scotland in the past five years, compared with an increase of 19 per cent in the UK as a whole. I could give a list of examples, but I will not today, because of the time, Presiding Officer. However, a response to a question from Emma Harper contains the details, which show that local authorities have gone from almost zero to more than 70 or 80 per cent coverage in some cases over that timeframe. Figures provided by the independent analysis site, thinkbroadband, paint an even more positive picture, indicating that more than 93 percent of all homes and businesses in Scotland now have access to superfast broadband infrastructure capable of delivering speeds of 30 Mbps and above.

Of course, although that success is to be celebrated, we cannot be complacent. Finlay Carson is right about the need to avoid creating new opportunities for a digital divide to emerge. He also mentioned the cost benefits of tackling outer areas first and working our way in. I certainly want to reassure members that, through R100, we are seeking take an outside-in approach.

Telecoms is at the heart of everything that we do. Whether for work or pleasure, we have come to expect that we will be able to access fast and reliable digital connectivity wherever and whenever we need it. Although we are demonstrably closing the gap, too many people across the country cannot yet reap the benefits that access to fast, reliable broadband can provide. I am sad to say that some householders would describe their broadband speed as steam driven, as has been mentioned. Thankfully that number is diminishing as we speak, and I hope that it will eventually be eliminated.

The benefits are substantial. In 2014, Scotland’s digital economy was, even at that point, estimated to be worth about £4.5 billion, with the potential to grow well beyond that. We have heard great examples from Gordon Lindhurst and others about areas where growth can be seen and where the multiplier effect from broadband investment kicks in.

A recent independent report has further highlighted the increasing importance of good-quality digital connectivity by stating that every £1 of public investment in fibre broadband infrastructure in Scotland delivers nearly £12 in benefits to Scotland’s economy, which is not an insubstantial return on our investment by anyone’s measure. Indeed, the commercial investment on the part of CityFibre and others will be having a similar impact on our economy. It is vital that that momentum is not lost, and that is why we have chosen to take the lead and invest Scottish Government resources to deliver the infrastructure that Scotland needs to help our country prosper, despite responsibility for broadband investment across the UK resting with the UK Government.

Mr Carson asked about timing in relation to our £600 million R100 programme, so I will give some indication of that. We would argue that no other part of the UK has made a commitment on the scale that we have, or with such ambition. From the outset, we have sought to ensure that we have a competitive bidding process, so that we can deliver the best value for money. The process is complex. We have had to build in a degree of flexibility in response to changes in the intervention area, such as the number of properties that we have to cover. We will award contracts later in 2019, and I will give Mr Carson and colleagues across the chamber as much notice of that as I can, when we get nearer to the time. I recognise the strong interest in the matter across the chamber. Procurement for R100 continues to progress apace, and we have retained three highly credible bidders in the process—I hope that that information is of value to members. That level of competition will help to ensure the best possible solutions and outcomes for Scotland, and I look forward to sharing further progress in due course.

What I can say at this point is that we are confident that the R100 procurement is going to produce a fantastic outcome—one that will make rural Scotland one of the most digitally connected places anywhere in Europe. To pick up on the points that were made earlier, just imagine what a difference that could make in terms of tackling depopulation and improving economic growth in our rural communities.

The future-proofed network that we expect R100 to deliver across the country will enable all of Scotland to be part of the digital revolution that members have talked eloquently about today and to share in the economic benefits. To pick up on points that were made by Mr Carson, Mr Lindhurst and others, full-fibre and 5G networks will enable the movement of data, ideas and applications in the same way that canals and railways underpinned the previous industrial revolution. Our investment—alongside that of commercial players such as CityFibre—will ensure that Scotland is well equipped to compete.

I am conscious of time, so I will wrap up. We believe that we have created a distinct offer for industry. CityFibre is one of many companies that are responding to that, which we welcome. Its investment and that of others is helping to strengthen our position as one of Europe’s most well-connected nations. From what I have heard tonight, I believe that I have the support of the chamber in delivering that ambition.

Meeting closed at 18:37.