”It is more important than television or any other communications revolution. It is crucial to economic success and society’s well-being. It is a vision, it’s radical and it’s exciting.” So said Steve Robertson, managing director of operations for BT Wholesale. “It” is broadband and “all those who care about Scotland”, said Robertson, “must realise and work towards its widespread use”.
Robertson was speaking at the final event in a series of regional discussions on broadband activity, jointly organised by the New Statesman and BT. The event, which was held at Edinburgh Castle, brought together representatives from government, business and education to consider the advantages and hopes that broadband is bringing to Scotland. A strong regional pride had been the hallmark of previous round-table meetings, each region pushing to become the first to exploit broadband to its full capabilities and become a role model for the rest of the country. But Scotland surpassed them all in sheer determination.
What Robertson lacked in substance – he gave his audience only the most basic facts about coverage and potential – he more than made up for with a passion and enthusiasm not dissimilar from an evangelical preacher’s. It was not what he said but how he said it that had everyone applauding and nodding in agreement. He recounted how things have changed since his childhood. “When I was a lad, we gathered around the local telephone kiosk and all my pals knew the number of the phone,” he said. “The community of interest was around the kiosk. Now it is around the world.” It is likely that the local telephone booth is still the social hub of rural villages, but equally likely that they do not use it, preferring to text or e-mail each other using their mobile phones. The point Robertson was making was that Scotland needs to look beyond its shores if it is to survive in an inter-national market. “BT’s networks,” he insisted, “bring safety and security.”
Edinburgh was an ideal venue for this event, a perfect example of the geographical challenges that confront communications systems in Scotland. One cannot help but be struck by the variety of landscape within the city centre alone, nestled as it is among rugged cliffs. And the castle, whose many tourists remind us of the role Scotland still plays in the world at large, offers views across the myriad islands of the Firth of Forth. BT has already made impressive progress in Scotland: it met its 70 per cent coverage target ahead of schedule in March 2004, and plans to have 97.8 per cent coverage by the end of this summer. Yet the remoter areas, and par-ticularly the islands, pose a real problem for broadband access and raise the wider issue of social exclusion.
Tavish Scott, MSP for Shetland, said the government had a “responsibility to make sure no one was excluded”. He emphasised how important it was that people on the periphery were not disadvantaged. Scott, who lives on Bressay Island, understands that more than most. Like many people on the islands, he commutes regularly to the mainland and often has to work from home. Mobile communications are essential to their businesses and livelihood. Bressay does not yet have access to broadband, but the Scottish Executive is working with BT to make sure that the country has 100 per cent coverage by the end of the year. However, the problem does not end there. Scott wants to persuade BT to stretch further – thinking about speed of access, among other things – so that the more remote communities are not always playing catch-up.
Ian and Jade Slade, who run a guest house on the Isle of Mull, are proof that broadband can benefit the whole community. Ian also works as a web designer and needs regular access to the internet. Jade is a district nurse and islanders need to be able to contact her easily by telephone in cases of emergency. At the moment, patients often cannot get through to her because the line is engaged. The couple are impatiently awaiting the arrival of broadband which, they have been told, should reach the island next month.
Small businesses that do have access have noticed the difference. Anne Holloway, who runs a hotel in Ross-shire, said that broadband has transformed her bookings system. She has had it for a year but, she insisted, only as a result of some very determined people in the community. Others, such as Islay McLeod in Caithness, have heard that broadband is coming, but are not sure what it involves. Despite Scott insisting that the government is working through enterprise initiatives to help businesses take advantage of broadband, none of these people was aware of any support or advice available to them.
Robertson urged Scotland to take this opportunity to put the country where it could and should be. One hopes that his words are not quite as lacking in substance as was the roast beef served up at lunch.