“More chairs had to be brought into the room”. Most will recognise this as the internationally-accredited hallmark of a successful meeting or event.
Let us ignore, for now, credible rumours that some organisers choose to under-provide so as to be able to say that more chairs were needed. Safe to say, however, the genuine requirement for additional seating has been the hallmark of every meeting of the Digital Forum since Alistair Carmichael and I first started hosting them over five years ago.
Initially, these meetings were set up to track progress in the programme, funded by the UK and Scottish governments, aimed at delivering fibre broadband to 95% of premises nationwide. Sadly, though predictably, the target in relation to Orkney was less than 75%, a point that has been a bone of contention at every Digital Forum meeting ever since.
Nevertheless, the meetings have at least allowed an opportunity for the public to engage directly with those responsible for delivering the programme, namely BT and Highlands & Islands Enterprise. It is an opportunity that a growing number of people in Orkney have enthusiastically taken up.
In response, over time, the promises from government have become more ambitious, although for too many individuals, businesses and communities in Orkney not a lot has changed.
Therefore, it came as little surprise that last Saturday’s most recent convening of the Forum rang once again to the anguished and angry voices of the digitally deprived. The surroundings of the Town Hall supper room were novel, after the mothers and toddlers group quite rightly ousted us from our usual home in the St Magnus Centre, but the plea from those attending was all too familiar: good quality, affordable broadband is no longer a luxury, but a necessity and one that is still denied to far too many people across our islands.
HIE outlined that the current roll-out programme is coming to an end, though there was heated disagreement about the extent of the coverage that has been achieved. Interestingly, even where it is available, take up of superfast broadband appears to be lower in Orkney than in either Shetland or the Western Isles, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Looking ahead, however, the Scottish Government has now promised that by the end of 2021, 30Mbps broadband will be available to every household and business in Scotland. Saturday’s meeting heard from one of the team tasked with delivering this unambiguous, but certainly challenging commitment.
Helpfully, Ministers appeared to have agreed that funding should be targeted at largely rural areas. They have also excluded those already receiving speeds of 24Mbps or more. This offers some hope, at least, that funds will not be used to ‘top up’ the already reasonably well served and may actually start dealing with those who have been at the back of the queue for far too long.
Procurement is now underway in the three different regions and officials were keen to stress that should bids from operators still leave any areas unserved or underserved, targeted interventions would take place. It’s not clear how this would be done, and using what technology, but the bottom line is that access to an affordable service of at least 30Mbps is non-negotiable. That issue of affordability, of course, is one that is absolutely pivotal.
Meantime, for those with very low speeds or no service, support remains available until the end of the year through HIE’s Better Broadband Subsidy Scheme https://www.scotlandsuperfast.com/where-when/the-programme/alternative-solutions BT also plan upgrades to exchanges in the isles that could help improve speeds over the course of 2018, though details remain sketchy.
Having recently taken over the company, BT’s representative was able to provide an update on EE’s investment in its mobile phone network in Orkney. 3G and 4G coverage does appear to have improved markedly, although delays in activating its low frequency signal and installing a mast in Kirkwall have left the capital considerably less well served than some more rural parts of the county. Again, though, further improvement is needed here too.
In an increasingly digital age, digital poverty is no longer acceptable. So here’s to a time when more chairs are not needed at the Digital Forum, which would be a true hallmark of success.