Although superfast broadband is recognised a key leveller of inequality between rural and urban areas, commercial providers naturally focusing their provision on the most heavily populated areas.
One would have hoped, though, that Scottish Government would have a care to place subsidy from public money for such services in support of the eternally underprivileged rural areas – and the rural villages in the rural areas.
More than 14,000 homes and businesses across Argyll and Bute are now connected into new fibre optic networks which are bringing faster broadband to rural communities. These connections herald the start of a roll-out across the area which will reach more than 8 out of 10 premises by the end of next year, 2016.
But this support has gone to the major towns. In Argyll and Bute, commercial services are live in Dunoon and Helensburgh – with further roll-out across both towns continuing and coupled with commercial deployment in Oban commencing from the Autumn.
The Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband [DSSB] project is investing £410m in extending the coverage of fibre based broadband to places which could not be reached by the market alone.
First services delivered by the DSSB project are in Campbeltown, Cardross, Dalmally, Dunoon, Innellan, Lochgilphead, Oban, Rothesay and Taynuilt – with the villages in this list here being close to the larger towns. The exception is Dalmally which is may well be explained by its sitting on a junction of fibreoptic cables.
More provision is to follow in these locations and roll-out will continue across the area for the rest of this year and through until 2017.
This leaves utterly neglected huge swathes of the rural villages of an area defined by its rurality.
The DSSB project in the area is funded by the Scottish and UK governments, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), COSLA, the European Regional Development Fund and private sector partners BT.
Brendan Dick, director of BT Scotland, says: ‘These are exciting times for Argyll and Bute as the Digital Scotland rollout begins to gather momentum. Over the past year or so we’ve done an enormous amount of work building a core fibre network to serve the area, laying cables not just under the ground but also on the seabed to serve our island communities.
‘Having laid the new network, we’re now seeing it bear fruit with the first communities in Argyll and Bute going live with the fast technology. Over the next year and a half we’ll see many more communities in the area benefiting from fibre broadband, as the roll-out, together with BT’s commercial rollout, reaches out to the majority of homes and businesses in the area.’
So far the project itself has reached almost 8,000 homes and added to the commercial roll-out this is around one in four Argyll and Bute premises.
Stuart Robertson, director of digital at HIE, says: ‘Last week we were in Oban to see how better broadband is already making a difference to local groups and businesses and their ability to work digitally. The First Minister met with the Argyll and Islands Tourism Co-operative, which is marketing the area online. I also met the team at internet services company Pole Position which works with many local businesses to develop their online presence. They are delighted at the arrival of superfast broadband in the town.
‘It’s great to see these early connections. Our aim is to build a broadband infrastructure which will allow as many communities and businesses as possible access the same level of connectivity as is enjoyed in more urban locations.’ So to the real big boys, Helensburgh. Dunoon and Oban are not seen as urban?
A community project called Gigaplus is underway to reach a number of island and mainland communities unlikely to be reached by the main roll-out. Led by eight local communities and supported by a £1m investment by Community Broadband Scotland, a wireless network is being designed to reach locations primarily in Lismore, Luing, Iona, Colonsay and parts of Jura, Islay, Mull and the Craignish peninsula.
Whee does this leave much of Cowal, much of Lomond, much of mid Argyll, much of Kintyre and much of Lorn? Whee does it leave them for the foreseeable future?
This sort of discrimination can only hasten mainland rural depopulation where what the Argyll economy most needs is a reversal of that accelerating trend.