On Friday (16th August 2011) the UK government announced, through Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, that its Broadband Delivery unit (BDUK) was allocating the last of its funding to upgrade broadband services across the UK.
The aim is to to ensure that 90% of ‘people in each local authority area‘ can access a superfast broadband (25Mbps+) service by 2015. The last 10% will get only a minimum speed of 2Mbps – which would be fast for many in Argyll and Bute.
In making the announcement of the funding distribution, the Culture Secretary said: ‘Fast broadband is absolutely vital to our economic growth, to delivering public services effectively, and to conducting our everyday lives.
‘But some areas of the UK are missing out, with many rural and hard-to-reach communities suffering painfully slow internet connections or no coverage at all. We are not prepared to let some parts of our country get left behind in the digital age.’
No one in this part of the world would argue with either of these statements.
Argyll knows just how important superfast broadband is to business development in today’s world – because we don’t have it.
And Argyll knows just how important such a service is to commercial sustainability in remote rural areas – because that describes almost all of Argyll and the Islands.
For example, the linked initiatives working to secure a sustainable future for the Isle of Bute have launched an online sales capacity for Bute crafts to extend the reach of its Brandish Bute (great name for the island whose natives are known as Brandanes) shop in Rothesay. Superfast broadband is utterly vital to underline this sot of initiative in remote places.
You may be far away from a specific customer, but if your website is superfast, your service is super-responsive and your delivery is super-prompt, you might as well be down the road,. And that’s the point.If you;’re remote and your broadband speed would trail a penny-farthing, you will seem so last century.
Brioadband Delivery has already and recently granted £56.9 million for this purpose to Wales and £4.4 million to Northern Ireland.
Friday’s funding allocations – to be made to local authorities across England and Scotland, saw £294.8million go to England and £68.8 million to Scotland.
The Scottish Government will decide how to allocate its tranche internally.
There is, however, a superfast broadband system, already installed at taxpayers expense, which should have been available well before now to business and domestic users by subscription – and is not. We address that issues later in this article.
Delivering on promised access to this system would give those who want it superfast broadband quite quickly and would leave the modest funding now avaiable to address the needs of those located beyond its reach.
Priority call for Cowal and for Argyll from Councillor Ron Simon
Cowal Councillor, Ron Simon, has now called for Argyll and Bute – and for Cowal in particular – to be considered a priority when it comes to allocating this £68.8m.
He start by effectively noting that the total amount available is inadequate for the job, pointing out that it would cost an estimated £300m just to upgrade the Highlands and Islands region.
Competition for these funds will clearly be fierce.
Councillor Simon says: ‘I am determined that the rural villages of Cowal should not miss out and I have written to the Cabinet Secretary, Alex Neil to ask him how we can be proactive in securing our share of the funding available; and requesting that he consider Cowal a priority when apportioning the cash.
‘It is vital that for us to be competitive and connected that we secure superfast broadband, this funding may be the opportunity we have been waiting for as it is unlikely that the private sector will invest in rural Communities such as ours.
‘I hope that others will join me in making the case and prevent Cowal’s rural areas from continued disadvantage by lacking 21st century communication technology.
‘This is one of many actions we need to take towards our vision of encouraging rural business and population growth so it is crucial that we strive to secure a share of this infrastructure investment.’
Council’s inability to represent Argyll
We agree absolutely with Councillor Simon’s analysis of the inadequacy of the funding and of the need for the largely neglected Argyll for once to be a priority.
The fact that it is not is down to two failures in the current council administration.
Neither at elected member level nor at senior officer level does this council have the spectrum of abilities needed to make, evidence and successfully press the economic case for Argyll. Part of that relates to the absence of any competent economic development plan.
Then, as a coalition led by a random collection of self-interested independents – the Alliance of Independent Councillors, banded together only to take power – it lacks the political connections to press home at Holyrood Argyll’s very real needs.
The Pathfinder North stasis
However regardless of the inadequate funding available for broadband upgrading, there is something that Councillor Simon and his fellow councillors across Argyll and Bute Council, regardless of whether they are of the administation or the opposition – can and must do now to help superfast broadband availability here.
A few years ago, funded by the taxpayer, every Scottish local authority in the Highlands and Islands was given a superfast broadband system through various system installations under an overall scheme called Pathfinder North.
This provides superfast broadband access for council members and staff and for the spectrum of public sector and third sector organisations that are part of the local authority network.
Public reassurances were given by the Scottish Government at the time – one recorded as evidence by The Kinthre Forum – that business and domestic users would be given access to this system through commercial partners and by subscription in the uual way.
The Scottish Government then remains the Scottish Government now, so there should be no problem in shifts of authority and inherited promises.
The partners in question were Cable and Wireless – the overall contractor for the Pathfinder North initiative; and, for commercial implementation, C&W’s retail subsidiary, Thus.
The capacity is already here to provide access, quicker than by any other way, to superfast (or superfaster than we have) broadband for Argyll and Bute, as for every other local authority area in the Highlands and Islands.
The rollout of Pathfinder North was announced as ‘complete’ on Monday 21st December 2009.
Almost a year later, on Wednesday 20th October 2010, Highlands and Islands Enterprise welcomed the news that its bid for UK Government funding to deliver superfast broadband in some of Scotland’s most rural areas had met with success. This was the money finally announced by Broadband Delivery UK almost a year after that, on Friday 16th August 2011.
But what of the subscription access to the Pathfinder North network – which was installed, which we paid for and which has still not been made commercially available to us, as promised, almost two years after the system was completed?
We have made enquiries since Easter 2010, as to progress on this promised, necessary and deliverable service – and met nothing but obfuscation,
Cable and Wireless, the parent contractor for the system delivery, makes the excise that Thus is an independent commercial subsidiary for whose work they cannot answer.
Thus had no knowledge of any forthcoming service.
The Scottish Government referred us to their commercial partners.
We are returning now to make yet another series of enquiries on this matter – and this time we are calling formally for formal engagement in the issue of both MSP’s responsible for the territory under the authority of Argyll and Bute Councjl: Michael Russell, SNP member for Argyll and Bute; and Jackie Baillie, Labour MSP for Dumbarton.
We urge folk in all parts of Argyll to call for their local councillors to take action to get access to the system they enjoy at our expense opened up to the rest of us, on a pay-for basis, as it was promised to be.
This single action will improve the service available by subscription to many of us, by using an already installed system supposed to fulfill this very function and freeing the slender amount of new money now available to help those beyond this sort of access.
Update on public accountability of Cable and Wireless and Thus
The short answer to this is that they make sure to obstruct access to themselves.
There is no telephone access, nor an identification of a communications or media team on either of their websites.
Bo looking at the Cable and Wireless Glasgow HQ on Google Maps we found a phone number for them (01603 [not the Glasgow code] 820507).
This turned out to be some sort of utterly unintelligible security service – which eventually gave us a number for C&W: 0141 2702706. This was switched through to an unidentified mobile which remained unanswered but eventually offered a messaging service. Will they get back to us with our request for a phone number for the Thus Communications team? We’ll report back on this here.
It is utterly unacceptable for a major government contractor not to be accessible by a publicly advertised telephone number.
It is equally unacceptable for a private sector commercial service offering a key utility, such as Thus, not to make itself available by phone.