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Scotland Commits to Free Urban WiFi and Business Rates Relief on New Fibre

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017 (8:47 am) - Score 777
digital scotland fibre optic map

The SNP controlled Scottish Government has this month set out their work programme for 2017-18, which among the known broadband promises (R100) has also pledged to deliver free WiFithroughout major town and city centres” and to match the UK Government’s rates relief on new fibre investment.

Most of what the new programme announced, at least in terms of digital infrastructure, remains unchanged from the Digital Strategy that was first published back in March 2017 (here) and as a result we initially overlooked it. For example, the related R100 programme is still aiming to extend “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) access to all by 2021 (100% coverage).

However there have also been a few small clarifications and changes since March 2017. Firstly, the Government has now confirmed that they intend to “match the UK Government’s rates relief on certain new fibre investment” (subject to confirmation of the associated detail), which means that Scotland should benefit from the same 5 year tax break on new “full fibre” (FTTP/H) networks as England and Wales (here).

Previously the Scottish Government had only said that they would use the business rates system to “incentivise the commercial delivery of new fibre and mast infrastructure” and there was some speculation that they might do things a little differently from the UK Gov, which now appears not to be the case.

On top of that the new programme also expects to “deliver free Wi-Fi throughout major town and city centres across Scotland,” which is something that wasn’t mentioned at all in the Digital Strategy. On the other hand a combination of UK and Scottish Government investment (example) has already helped to deploy free public WiFi networks across parts of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Perth.

Furthermore 96% of all libraries in Scotland can also use free WiFi. In that sense it’s unclear precisely how many “major” towns and cities will benefit that haven’t already deployed such a service.

The Work Programme for 2017-18

We cannot afford to wait for the UK Government to match our ambition, even though this is a reserved policy area. We will pursue the UK Government and Ofcom to implement changes to UK-wide policy and regulation which have the potential to improve broadband and mobile coverage in Scotland – and press for Scotland to get its fair share of UK funding and investment to enhance connectivity.

No matter their response, by 2021 we will ensure that Scotland is fully digitally connected. In the coming year, we will:

* exceed our target of 95% of properties having access to fibre broadband
* launch the first phase of procurement for ‘Reaching 100%’ (R100), our programme of investment to deliver 100% access to superfast broadband of 30Mbps to all homes and businesses by 2021
* review our approach to enable more effective development of community broadband projects

We are also aiming to make Scotland the most attractive place in the UK to invest in telecoms. So we will:

* deliver free Wi-Fi throughout major town and city centres across Scotland
* unlock the potential of international fibre connectivity for new business opportunities, improved broadband performance and increased resilience by exploring opportunities to link Scotland to existing or new transatlantic fibre crossings
* match the UK Government’s rates relief on certain new fibre investment, subject to confirmation of the associated detail

Enhancing our telecoms connectivity benefits everyone and creates opportunities for businesses around mobile e‑commerce. Our ground‑breaking Mobile Action Plan, developed in collaboration with industry and launched in 2016, is the first of its kind in the UK. In 2017‑18, we will deliver transformative measures, including:

* reforming planning measures to create favourable conditions for infrastructure investment
* developing a programme to address 4G mobile coverage ‘not spots’ with delivery of initial phase activity in 2017-18
* accelerating deployment of infrastructure, for example through delivering new rental guidance for mobile infrastructure, including small cells, on public buildings

We want more businesses to make better use of digital infrastructure and adopt digital technology. We will provide support for them to do this by investing an additional £1.7 million in 2017-18 to build on the highly successful and well-received first year of ‘DigitalBoost’ delivered through Business Gateway.

We should point out that the Scottish Government launched their first consultation on the ambitious R100 “superfast broadband” roll-out programme in July 2017, which anticipated that a total of £400m – £600m may become available for investment via the forthcoming procurement (sourced from the UK gov, Scottish gov, local authorities, city region deals and EU).

The proposed funding could potentially make R100 bigger (financially speaking) than the existing £428m Digital Scotland project, which isn’t a surprise due to the high cost of catering for such sparse and remote rural communities.

So far the DS scheme has already made “superfast broadband” connectivity available to around 90% of Scotland, although this figure drops to just 73% in the Highlands and Islands region. The DS programme now aims to ensure that 95% of premises in Scotland are put within reach of a “high speed fibre broadband” network by the end of March 2018, which falls to 86% for the rural Highland and Islands region by the end of 2017 (here).

Meanwhile the R100 consultation closed last month (it was very short, maybe too short according to some altnet providers) and the Government is now working to finalise their intervention areas before publishing an OJEU notice (PCS-Tender) in order to give suppliers an opportunity to bid (expected this autumn 2017). The intention is then to award a contract during 2018 and the related deployment plans would then begin by 2019.

However the 2019 start date doesn’t allow network providers much time to actually roll-out the necessary infrastructure and the Scottish Government has separately expressed frustration over the UK Government’s proposed 10Mbps USO deal with BT (here). Suffice to say that Scotland’s plan should still be considered subject to change, at least until we know the final outcome of both the proposed tender and the USO.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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