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30 June 2011

S4M-00448 Rural Connectivity

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-00448, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on rural connectivity. I will give members a few moments to swap places. As the debate is undersubscribed, the Presiding Officers will be slightly more generous in allocating time. If members want to take interventions, we will do our best to ensure that they are not disadvantaged by that.

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16:45

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

It is a delight to speak on a subject that kept me in gainful employment for many years and finally deposited me here. Despite a powerful and impressive speech from Alex Fergusson, I intend to support the motion in the cabinet secretary’s name. I assure colleagues that, having looked carefully at the amendments, we are prepared to support them. We have slight reservations about some of the wording in the Labour one, but let us not get diverted into a discussion about bits of the debate. Incidentally, in my intervention on Elaine Murray, I made the distinction between bytes and bits, so, before I move to more substantive matters, I will expand members’ knowledge by saying that, in the trade, half a byte—which is four bits clustered together—is referred to as a nibble. There we are.

The debate has been useful. The cabinet secretary and I and our colleagues will be tramping many distant corners of Scotland, hoping for good weather and for adequate mobile phone signals and the ability to communicate with our officials using broadband, whether wireless or fixed. I am sure that members of other parties and members of our party who are not in the Government will be doing something similar.

Like the cabinet secretary, I welcome John McClelland’s review of public sector ICT. The debate is about delivering a wide range of benefits to rural Scotland by having the right communications in place. It is clear from the debate that those benefits are not simply economic. We need to equip our communities and the people and businesses in them with the appropriate technologies, if only to level the playing field. That will create an opportunity to avoid further disadvantage, and it will create advantage. Improving rural communications is very much central to our purpose.

I want to say a few words about history generally and the role of communications in it. Eight thousand years ago, the human race was in essence a herdsman culture. At that time, in Sumeria—there are debates about where and when it happened, but I adhere to the view that it was in Sumeria—the settled culture that is the basis of our culture today first appeared. From that point, communication became important because, as people did not travel around, they needed to send messages to other communities to communicate with them.

The world started to change. We had the invention of money, which involved the tying of knots on string when people put grain into grain stores. Many things that we have today started then. In the city of Jerash in the middle east, one can find the cart tracks that are still there in the main street from 2,000 years ago. Transport, which was one of the first instruments of connectivity, became important. As I mentioned last week, the Romans created an empire that endured for between 400 and 500 years, partly because they created a system of hilltop signalling that enabled messages to go from a corner of the European empire back to headquarters in Rome in about six hours. Communication was important, too, for Scotland. The reformation and the introduction of the Bible printed in English drove communication and education in Scotland.

An awful lot has happened in a relatively short space of time. When I was involved, at 11 am on 25 January 1985, in the launch of the first universal access home banking system to allow people to look at their bank accounts, the speed at which that system worked, delivering huge value to people, was 1,200 bits per second down to the customer and 75 bits per second from the customer up to the bank.

Alex Johnstone: The minister has raised a subject that I believe continues to be a problem with broadband provision to this day. The upload speeds that are generally provided are as little as 5 per cent of the available download speeds—can he tell me why? He obviously has greater knowledge of that. Is it simply a historical anomaly, or is there a technical reason? We are finding that there are many more reasons why higher upload speeds would be of value as we develop the broadband system.

Stewart Stevenson: The member is absolutely correct, although I will try not to be overly tempted by the question. A range of technologies could have been chosen when we developed broadband, but the technology that is used is called asymmetric digital subscriber line—ADSL. It was felt that the pressing need was to get data out to people. However, the reality is that, in rural areas in particular, we need good speeds back to the centre because businesses are serving other customers through that relatively slow connection. As we move to fibre, there will be opportunities to work with different technologies—essentially, symmetric technologies—that will provide an answer to the problem for those who use ADSL on copper. I do not know whether anybody else in the chamber understands that, but I hope that Alex Johnstone does.

Even with regard to telephones, the world has changed enormously. In 1958, when my father made the first transatlantic call from our house—it was on business: one of his patients was very ill and he had to communicate with her husband, who was in the United States—it had to be booked a day in advance. It was to last precisely three minutes—he could not get any longer—and it cost three guineas, which was approximately one third of the average weekly wage. Now, people can use a mobile phone and for 6p can call the States on demand. A lot has happened in a short space of time and a lot more will happen.

Many interesting technologies have been developed in local situations. In the Swiss Alps, yodelling was a way of communicating using the human voice. Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone in 1876. The Bank of Scotland installed its first telephone only five years later, in 1881, when there were already 300 subscribers in the Edinburgh telephone directory. Mind you, when the bank installed its telephone, the board required that the telephone not be used to conduct business.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Minister, I must stop you for a moment. I ask that members who are coming into the chamber do so quietly, please. If you want to have conversations, I would be grateful if you would have them outside the chamber. Thank you.

Stewart Stevenson: The first electronic digital communication between Edinburgh and London was installed in 1868. It was a telegraph, and the telegraph is what opened up the west of the United States and made it the prosperous area that it now is. Those are just some of the many historical examples of how communications have helped.

Elaine Murray said that 3G coverage in Scotland is patchy, especially in rural areas. Where I live, I pray for 2G coverage—3G coverage is a distant hope. The map of my constituency has two tiny blue dots on it, which indicate where 3G touches. Frankly, for most of Scotland we could hold up a blank sheet of paper with a few wee blue bits on it representing 3G coverage. That is why it is important that, when we go to 4G coverage, we take a different approach. Whatever Government does it, we will be creating huge commercial opportunities for the operators of 4G networks, just as we did for the operators of 2G and 3G networks. In exchange for giving access to those huge commercial opportunities, we should place different conditions on the operators. One that might suit Scotland well is the condition that 4G phones should, at no additional cost, roam between different companies’ masts. Why should they not? It would not cost the companies much to ensure that and it would reduce the number of masts that there would need to be—reducing the costs to the companies responsible for the 4G networks—as well as delivering a better solution for Scotland. That would probably not be of great interest in densely populated areas, though. Those are some examples of what we can do.

We have moved on from the election that I fought in 1987, when I had to carry tuppences in my pocket and know where every telephone box in the constituency was. In 1992, we had the first generation of analogue mobile phones, and in 1997, we had the first digital phones. Every time there is an election, things have moved on, and things move on very fast.

Sarah Boyack: Where does the minister think we will get to by 2015?

Stewart Stevenson: The answer depends partly on how our relationship with the UK Government develops. We will work with it closely and proactively—we will not be passive—and consider the achievements of countries such as Finland, which Rhoda Grant mentioned. We have ambition, but we will work with other people to ensure that things happen.

Rhoda Grant noted that Highland Council had put in a fibre network but that it was difficult to access it for other purposes. We need to ensure that standards are in place for the exploitation of private networks—even when they are licensed—to create the technological solutions to allow other people to access the available services.

Paul Wheelhouse discussed the difficulties in the Borders, which a number of members have described. The Government’s major investment in the development of the Borders railway will help one aspect of communication in that rural area, but electronic communications make a real difference.

For small businesses that deliver goods to market via carriers, we must look at getting the carriers to pick up in rural areas, as we have had significant difficulty in getting them to drop down. Paul Wheelhouse referred to business parks as a potential source of connectivity for many businesses and for people who work in rural areas, and I am sure that that is the case.

George Adam spoke about Sandra Webster’s two autistic sons and about social integration, and there is something very important in that. It is a fact that people in rural areas are more isolated but, increasingly, the existence of communication technologies can shrink that distance. As families have moved all over the world, communication has become an important part of keeping them together, and it is the same as families move throughout Scotland, so George Adam is right to highlight that.

Jim Hume and other members talked about telehealth. It is difficult on a snowy night to get a doctor, a nurse or a midwife to a particular location, but if a video camera can be used via Skype or other services to help or provide advice to someone, that is a real life saver. It is important that we focus on that as one of the many benefits that we can deliver.

Rob Gibson mentioned that, although there are more than 1,000 BT exchanges in Scotland, some people are paying for 8 megabits per second and getting only half a megabit per second.

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): I ask the minister to begin to wind up now.

Stewart Stevenson: Rob Gibson is correct to say that there is huge variability in speed, and that we need transparency in what is paid for and what is delivered. That is very important indeed.

Joan McAlpine reminded us that it was only in 1985 that Vodafone permitted the first mobile call. Things are going to move fast, and we must ensure that we support the potential of the outward-looking and dynamic communities that exist in rural Scotland. Our farmers, our fishermen and all the people who live in the country contribute to world-famous industries such as our food and drink industry, and the potential of our wave and wind power is vast.

However, there is more potential in rural Scotland that can be realised through the delivery of effective digital communications. It is this Government’s ambition and determination that we will do that, by working with the UK Government and private companies, but most of all by working with those who live and work in our rural areas.

Stewart Stevenson
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