03 May 2018

S5M-12010 Digital Connectivity

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): Good afternoon. The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-12010, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on Scotland’s digital connectivity.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Communications is a very important part of the world economy and every aspect of the world. The first great step forward in digital communications took place 2,000 years ago, when the Romans introduced wig-wag, which was a hilltop system that carried a signal from Londinium to Roma and back in the course of a single day. That replaced the three months that it would have taken, by sea and by cleft stick, before then.

When the telegraph came in, in the early 1800s, there was another quantum leap. Of course, when Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone system for the first time, in 1876, that took us to another place—voice. Only five years later, the telephone directory for Edinburgh had 300 connections in it. Scotland has been a leader in communications in many ways in the past.

In his opening remarks, the cabinet secretary spoke about there being broad consensus on the need for broadband. I am delighted that no one has attempted to break that consensus, because we all know and assert its importance.

The first digital communications system on which I worked, when I worked in technology, was in the 1960s. It ran at 110 bits per second—not kilobits or megabits—but we were able to connect all 400 branches of the bank to a real-time data inquiry and collection system at that speed. We have moved on rapidly with mobile technology. The first digital system, GSM—the global system for mobile communications—came in in 1990. I was one of a group of 12 people who piloted it in the UK. When I was the manager of the Bank of Scotland’s data centre 30 years ago, my telecoms bill was £10 million. I could buy that service now for a few hundred pounds. Things progress all the time.

Before I go on too much, I want to rein in Fin Carson slightly. I heard, with delight, that the UK Government will deliver a speed of 10 megabytes per second to everyone. That would be eight times its current promise, because that is for 10 megabits, and not 10 megabytes. I also want to say that smartphones do not rely on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 standard, which is for wi-fi, but on high performance data mining and applications, or HPDMA; enhanced data GSM environment, or EDGE; and general packet radio service, or GPRS. In other words, they use different communications technologies, so wi-fi is really quite irrelevant.

In the time that I have left, I want to pick up a particular point in the Tory amendment, which says that the digital gap is

“widening between urban and rural Scotland”.

Let us look at some numbers. In 2012, for cities, the penetration of fibre-enabled premises ranged from 95 per cent in Dundee to 59 per cent in Stirling. At the other end of the scale, in Aberdeenshire, as Mr Rumbles referred to, we were at 25.1 per cent, which was 33.9 percentage points behind the worst city and 74.9 percentage points behind the best. Argyll and Bute was on 26 per cent, Moray was on 28 per cent, Highland was on 23 per cent and the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland were on zero. Has the gap widened? Well, clearly not.

Argyll and Bute has advanced by 54.8 points, Moray by 66.2 points, Highland by 62.4 points, Western Isles by 75.9 points, Orkney by 74.7 points, Shetland by 79.6 points and Aberdeenshire—the council area in which Peter Chapman, Mike Rumbles and I live—by 65.6 points. In only one city has it grown by more than 20 points—in Stirling, which was bottom of the pack, it has grown by 34.6 points. I have juggled the numbers left-handed, right-handed, two-handed, off the floor, off the wall and every which way, and rural areas are catching up with cities every single day.

More fundamentally, I expect that, by 2021, people such me, who are in the 5 per cent who are not fibred—and indeed who do not have DAB radio, do not have Freeview, have no mobile phone signal and cannot see either of the data satellites because of terrain issues—will be fibre at the premises. I expect that most of the R100 will end up in that position. That means that rural areas will have 300Mbps megabits capability if they have fibre at the premises. We will actually be ahead of urban areas, if we are lucky.

We need to see what comes from the contracts, but there is a huge difference between getting fibre to the premises, which is a very likely outcome of the tender that is out there—that is what I hear from some of those who might be interested in bidding—and the miserable 10 megabits that the UK Government guaranteeing to everybody. It is well outside the 30Mbps that our Government is promising, but it is substantially ahead of what the UK Government is promising. We are likely to have fibre to the premises as part of R100.

Is there a challenge here? I will not know when I will get my fibre until a little man or woman engineer has come and looked at the path to my very door. They will need to walk from the exchange up to my house and check where they can lay the cable. Every premises will need to be inspected before a date can be given. We can do it by area only in the first instance. Inspection of premises needs to follow after that.

I will be very happy to support the Government’s motion. I may even think about some of the amendments, although the Tories’ amendment is a bit of a challenge.


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