Bid to improve rural broadband speeds

Fibre cable Image copyright Thinkstock

Almost £18m is to be invested in broadband services in Scotland to improve speeds in rural areas.

The money is part of a £440m UK package aimed at delivering access to superfast broadband.

The cash comes from "efficiency savings" and money returned by BT as part of the UK government's broadband rollout scheme.

Critics said they feared the scheme would not benefit those with the worst service.

Under a 2010 deal, the UK government paid BT to roll out superfast broadband in hard-to-reach areas where providers had said it was not cost-effective to install broadband infrastructure.

As part of the agreement, if more than 20% of premises in those areas bought superfast broadband, BT had to repay some of the subsidy.

Across Scotland the take-up rate has been 26.30%, leading to a payment of £17,843,000, the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport said.

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The funding will be spent through the Broadband Delivery UK scheme.

Ministers set up the programme so that by the end of 2017, 95% of UK premises would be able to buy superfast broadband - defined as 24Mbps. Such speeds enable families to stream TV on multiple devices at the same time.

'Virtually impossible'

BT has faced criticism for the speed of the rollout and the quality of the broadband coverage.

Former B&B owner Mandy Boswell, from Dunvegan in Skye, told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme that broadband coverage on the island was "appalling".

It made running a business "virtually impossible", she said.

"Down to the administrative side, moving on to guests who come here, the expectations of guests are growing year on year on year," she added.

"If they're not complaining the roads aren't good enough or there's no public loos, then they're banging on the door at 10:30 saying the broadband's down. I can't fix any of those, no B&B provider can. They are out with our control."

She said she believed that the investment would benefit people who already have a broadband service that Skye residents "can only dream of".

However UK Culture Secretary Karen Bradley told the programme: "What we're announcing today is exactly for people like Mandy - those people in those areas that don't have superfast access at the moment."

"In Scotland that means there are now 670,000 homes and premises that have access to faster broadband as a result of the work we've already done. And there will be even more getting access from this announcement."

'Sufficient coverage'

The UK government and BT said it was a "win-win" in that more households were taking it up, triggering clawback payments that would help other premises access faster broadband speeds.

"We're delighted that the success and efficiency of our delivery will mean hundreds of thousands more homes and business could get faster broadband than originally expected," a BT spokesman said.

The UK government has not set a timeline for when customers will benefit.

The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, said the Scottish government was committed to delivering 100% broadband coverage for Scotland by the end of the current parliament in 2021.

He added: "The Scottish government is aware that broadband is key to many aspects of rural life and, despite inaction from the UK government which retains many of the powers in this area, we have been working for a substantial period of time to ensure sufficient coverage for every community in Scotland.

"We are already investing £410m to extend access to fibre broadband to 95% of premises in Scotland by the end of next year through our Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme.

"Commercial coverage alone would only have delivered 66%."

Mr Ewing said his government would announce further measures in the new year.

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