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Don’t leave us languishing ‘in the Dark Ages’

SIR HUMPHREY APPLELBY, in the classic sitcom Yes, Minister said that it was always best to “dispose of the difficult bit in the title. It does less harm there than in the text.” Sir Humphrey, of course, was a master of obfuscation and manipulation.

 

I was reminded of this recently when I read a publication from the Scottish Government entitled A Digital Ambition for Scotland and searched, in vain, for any evidence of any ‘ambition’ within it. Clearly, a keen pupil of Sir Humphrey had been at work. 

 

The document lists a motley collection of mostly uninspiring projects that are supposed to demonstrate Scotland’s leadership in this field, and also, in what has become common in such reports, it is full of boxes containing little anecdotes. I’ve got some news for the Scottish Government; the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.

 

This document was issued in response to a number of recent studies from the likes of Reform Scotland, ScotlandIS, Ofcom Scotland, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), all of which called for a dramatically higher targets in the provision of broadband.

 

The RSE was founded in the Scottish Enlightenment and has numbered innovative giants such as James Watt, Lord Kelvin and James Clerk-Maxwell as its Fellows. So it seems apt that the preface to their report begins “Two hundred years ago, Scotland was in the forefront of an industrial revolution based on novel and powerful energy technologies that led to fundamental changes in economies, societies and political and social relationships”. 

 

In that industrial revolution Scotland was at the absolute cutting-edge. Today we are right in the middle of another technology-enabled global revolution based this time on digital communication technologies. A digital revolution that is transforming the world we live in in dramatic ways and opening up whole new ways of working, communicating and living together. 

 

In order to develop competitive innovative products it is essential that Scottish companies have access to world-class broadband connectivity but this time round we are, unfortunately, not anywhere near the cutting edge. The trade body ScotlandIS laments that we risk being left ‘in the dark ages’ unless this is fixed.

 

The RSE document recommends a minimum speed of 16Mb/s by 2015, rising to 128Mb/s by 2020 with much higher provision for most. The Scottish Government document doesn’t set any actual targets, asking somewhat meekly for ‘significant progress’ by 2015.

 

The vast majority of businesses and consumers are dependent on BT and Virgin for provision but they can only move at a certain pace. They are also not particularly keen on new competitors but that is exactly what is required.

 

So if we really had an ambition for Scotland, we would put in place some of the RSE recommendations that would encourage new competition to emerge; including the formation of a Digital Scotland Trust to fund new social providers; the opening out of backbone infrastructure to all-comers; the removal of distortions in rating systems that discriminate against small networks; and licensing the availability of wireless spectrum so rural areas can be effectively serviced.

 

Last year, a new operator, Hong Kong Broadband launched a 1Gigabit/second service for under £20 per month. This is some 250 times faster than what the average Scottish consumer enjoys. 

 

“This is an eminently replicable model”, say Benoit Felton of Diffraction Analysis, a Paris-based consultancy. “But not by someone who already owns a network – unless they’re willing to scrap (their) network.”  

 

250 times better than what is currently available – now that’s what I call an ambition. 

 

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