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Highlands in danger of being left in 'digital stone age'

By Scott Maclennan

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Shadow finance secretary and Highlands MSP Donald Cameron.
Shadow finance secretary and Highlands MSP Donald Cameron.

The Highlands is at risk of losing out altogether on the SNP’s flagship broadband programme and may be left in the “digital stone age” if a court case over the contract tendering process is not resolved by the end of the year.

The R100, or Reaching 100 per cent of households with superfast internet connectivity, has been beset by delays but worst hit has been the largest segment of the scheme – the £384 million north lot including the Highlands and Islands, Angus, Aberdeen and Dundee.

Due to a legal challenge brought by Oxfordshire-based Gigabit over BT Openreach being awarded preferred status to take the contract forward, the already delayed programme now has no end in sight.

Accusations in Scotland’s highest court heard of “manifest error” in the contract process as Scottish ministers now admit that the case means the north lot could miss a crucial cut-off date at the end of the year.

If it is not resolved by the end of the year then the Scottish Government is concerned the contract would no longer qualify for the European state aid deal that underpins the whole scheme.

Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron, the Conservatives' shadow finance secretary, has warned the Scottish Government that any further delay in the R100 programme risks keeping some parts of the region in “the digital stone age”.

He said: “My region is facing an enormous challenge in recovering from the coronavirus pandemic and decent and reliable connectivity is indispensable to local residents and businesses who will lead our recovery.

“Unfortunately, as we have seen with the ferry fiasco, major infrastructure projects are not safe in the hands of SNP ministers.

"They need to get a firm grip on this project and ensure that it will be delivered no later than promised.

“It is intolerable that communities are at risk of being kept in a digital stone age because of disputes of this kind.”

Earlier, finance secretary and Highland MSP Kate Forbes called for the UK government to invest more heavily in digital infrastructure in a bid to “kick-start the economy”.

Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Edward Mountain said: “It is clear that the delivery date in the Highlands for R100 is slipping further and 2026/27 might be optimistic. What is also clear is that this Scottish Government has made a promise it cannot keep, which is down to poor administration and planning.”

Some parts of the Highlands have little or no internet access, and since the advent of Covid-19 connectivity has become an even more pressing issue than before.

Programmes such as NHS Near Me, which allows for online consultations, cannot access as many people as hoped for due to limited coverage.

And many businesses along the North Coast 500 and the rest of the north are unable to access online banking facilities despite branch closures.

In 2018, rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing vowed to resign if the R100 target date of 2021 was missed.

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