26 September 2002

S1M-3418 Rural Business (Sustainability)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): The first item of business is a debate on motion S1M-3418, in the name of Alex Fergusson, on business sustainability in rural Scotland, and on two amendments to that motion.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate Alasdair Morrison on telling us the blindingly obvious—that the Western Isles is closer to getting broadband. It is closer to getting broadband only in the sense that the Western Isles is closer to the United States than Edinburgh is. That does not mean that broadband is round the corner or that broadband will come tomorrow.

I want to concentrate on broadband, because although farming defines the geography and topology of the countryside, increasingly the economic life of the countryside must lie elsewhere. Future generations must have access to future industries. The infrastructure that is delivered by broadband technology is an essential component of the countryside's access to the future.

The Executive's strategy is not a broadband strategy at all; it is a narrow-band strategy. Ministers have indicated in replies to me that delivery of the aggregated public sector demand for broadband will start in the second half of 2003, some two years after the announcement of the strategy.

Let me read a quotation:

"Broadband is crucial to the success of the ... economy, public services and the drive to raise people's skills and knowledge."

George Lyon: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I do not have time.

"Bringing broadband within reach of more areas ... will help ... companies to become more competitive, open up opportunities for online learning and help deliver services more effectively."

I apologise to Andrew Davies, the Minister for Economic Development in Wales, for omitting the words "Welsh" and "of Wales" from that quote. Wales is an example of a country with significant rural areas that is engaging in a real broadband initiative, which receives £100 million. The rate of take-up of broadband in Wales is between 20 and 30 per cent higher as a result of the measures that have been taken.

In Scotland, we have universal access to broadband via satellite technology. How many people have taken up a system that is expensive and has some technical limitations? The answer is 182. Countries that are similar to Scotland are in a very different position. The UK is 22nd out of 28 countries in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey of the most connected countries. The rate in Scotland is half the UK's rate. Finland is 10th in the OECD survey, Sweden is fourth, Norway is 14th and Switzerland is 12th. Those countries all have financial independence. Although that might not be the only reason, it certainly helps when one can control everything that one does in an economy.

We are expected to welcome the fact that 67 of our telephone exchanges are capable of supporting ADSL, but we should remember that there are 1,100 exchanges in Scotland. The figure of 67 represents a tiny percentage of that total. Scotland will be left behind unless we can bring broadband to the whole country, on a level playing field and at uniform cost, as is being done in Wales. We must not restrict the new technologies to city centres.

The next generation of broadband is SDSL—symmetric digital subscriber line—which is being piloted in Glasgow. SDSL will present a further disadvantage to rural areas, which will not have access to the technology. This week, we have learnt that things will get even worse.

Allan Wilson: Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I am finished.

The fact that the new Office of Communications has no Scottish representation will mean that broadcasting and communications will have no voice where the decisions are made. The Executive's partners in Government are responsible for that.


Stewart Stevenson
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