McGrigor puts broadband questions to top EC official

Jamie McGrigor, Highlands & Islands Conservative MSP, last week asked Mr Robert Madelin, the European Commission’s (EC) Director-General for Communications Networks, Content & Technology, about broadband provision in the Highlands & Islands.

Jamie, who was attending a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Infrastructure & Capital Investment Committee at which Mr Madelin took questions from MSPs on digital infrastructure, raised the issues of broadband provision in the remoter parts of the Highlands & Islands and the cost of satellite broadband.

Addressing his question to Mr Madelin, Jamie said:

I represent the Highlands and Islands  -  I am an MSP for the Highlands & Islands region, which goes from the south end of Kintyre to the most northerly Shetland island.  It covers more than half the land mass of Scotland, but has a population of only half a million people; the population is very scattered.  In some areas, we face significant population decreases, which are extremely worrying.

“I happen to live in Argyll, and I know how desperately difficult it is to get broadband there and to run a business, especially a tourism business, in which it is necessary to get back to people straight away.

“My first question is on something that you may have covered.

“How can the EU help to get reliable broadband to the most remote rural communities, which still face a wait of years?  Is there anything that can be done for those people to stop the depopulation that I am sure is related to that?

“Secondly, what is your view on rural constituents having to pay significantly more for satellite broadband services than the rest of the population?”

Mr Madelin responded:

I will start with the second question, because that is news to me.  I guess that it is a commercial decision, because companies will charge you more to send the man to screw the satellite dish on to your house.  That I could understand a bit, but I think that the refusal to supply is a real problem even for parcel post-type deliveries in your region  -  I have friends who live there  -  and it is not clear to me that it should be okay to refuse to supply within a territory.  After all, if it is a community, people should supply it.

“If a difference is also being imposed on consumers because they have no choice  -  for instance, if somebody providing satellite is charging a higher subscription just because they know that they are not competing against a BT package  -  I would say that that is probably a matter for the competition authorities.  It is a political matter if the consumer is vulnerable and that vulnerability is being exploited.  I do not know the facts in order to judge whether it is one or the other or both, but it seems clear that there should be a fair price for satellite services, as for everything else.

“I gave a list of the issues that we have not yet fixed, which was short, but one issue on which we have not focused sufficiently is the specific characteristics of the digital consumer problem in all its areas.

“Being a consumer in the digital age is difficult in different ways from being a consumer in the bricks-and-mortar age, and the consumer policy and consumer protection models that we tend to apply are still very bricks and mortar.  Your satellite example is an interesting case study, and I would like to look at it a bit more.

“On your first point, I do not have so much to add.  Because I have never been responsible for territorial connectivity, I would hesitate to say “This is the answer”.  However, it would probably be a fruitful road of inquiry  -  and we would be happy to put people together  -  to compare what happens at the local level in the northern bits of Norway or Sweden with what happens in your region and to see how they managed.  It did not all come down miraculously from Stockholm and Oslo; a lot of it comes from the political and practical actions at the middle levels.

“It may well be that making the case much more strongly for some specific roll-out, such as putting a piece of fibre between one place and another in return for another party doing something else, would unlock financing decisions that tend to be put immediately into the too-difficult category when you are looking at the overall large numbers.  There may be lessons to learn from the successes and problems of different rural communities in Scotland and in neighbouring countries”.

Commenting today, Jamie, who regularly presses the Scottish Government to improve broadband provision across his region, said:

“I was pleased to have the opportunity to raise the frustration felt by many of my constituents in rural areas who are unable to access the fast and reliable broadband enjoyed by city dwellers.

“I receive frequent complaints from constituents who face long waits before their local exchanges are due to be upgraded.  I am also aware some constituents who live far away from exchanges are paying for satellite broadband which can be significantly more expensive than normal broadband.  This seems unfair, and puts rural communities at an economic disadvantage.

“I felt it was important to raise these issues directly with the Director-General.

“As I said at the Committee, having reliable broadband is critical to so many businesses, including tourism businesses, and is vital to sustaining rural communities and developing the economy of my region.

“I will continue to press the Scottish Government and its agencies to redouble its efforts to ensure all parts of the Highlands & Islands can benefit from the connectivity that comes from proper broadband provision”.