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Calls for Scottish Government to Rethink Rural Broadband Vouchers

Monday, Feb 12th, 2024 (9:41 am) - Score 880
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The Shetland MSP, Beatrice Wishart, has called on the Scottish Government (SG) to “rethink” the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (SBVS) after it was revealed that only around 3-4% of the c.80,000 homes and businesses eligible for support under this measure had taken it up.

The voucher scheme is designed to complement the SG’s £600m Reaching 100% (R100) broadband upgrade project with Openreach (BT), which aims to ensure that almost the whole of Scotland can access a “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) connection (at present it’s just over 96%). The original completion target for this was the end of 2021, but that has since been heavily delayed to 2028 (i.e. partly reflecting the reality of deploying full fibre across some very remote areas).

NOTE: In Scotland the responsibility for broadband is reserved to Westminster, but that doesn’t stop local and devolved authorities from making their own investments (e.g. R100). Funding for R100 includes £592.2m of Scottish Government investment, £49.4m of UK Government (BDUK) investment and £54.1m from BT.

Despite this, the SG has long recognised that its contract with Openreach won’t be enough to reach every single property and their quick fix for this was the SBVS. The scheme offers people in such areas the ability to take a subsidy of up to £5,000 to help cover the installation costs of a 30Mbps+ capable network, which can be combined with vouchers from other premises to help build a new local network.

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The existence of the voucher scheme is frequently used by the SG to claim that “all homes and businesses across Scotland can currently access a superfast broadband service” (here), which is deeply misleading. At present, just over 96% of Scotland can access fixed broadband speeds of 30Mbps+ and a voucher scheme alone can’t fill in all the gaps (i.e. they’re not big enough to cover all builds and many people aren’t even aware they exist).

Similarly, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) recently indicated that 6 out of 10 firms would have applied for the vouchers if they’d known they actually existed. But as stated above, awareness is only half the battle.

Shetland MSP, Beatrice Wishart, said (Herald Scotland):

“A reliable internet connection is a modern-day essential, yet the voucher scheme is the Scottish Government’s Plan B. Neither SNP plan to reach all homes with highspeed broadband has worked and a rethink is needed. Much is made of ensuring no one gets left behind, but the fact is in island and rural areas they have been and vouchers are no alternative to those who are not reached by R100.

People might be aware of the voucher scheme, but on balance choose not to go down that route. The voucher scheme has never been good enough to plug gaps and connect those households and businesses left out of the original scheme.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said:

“R100 continues to deliver at pace, as evidenced by the connection of Fair Isle in the Shetland Islands nearly two years ahead of schedule and remains on track to complete build and ensure all contracted premises are connected by 2028. We will support this with record investment of £140 million in 2024/25.

We have always been clear that our 100% commitment would be delivered in a variety of ways, with the demand-led R100 Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (SBVS) designed to support those not included within an R100 contract or commercial plan.

The voucher provides a subsidy of up to £5,000 to cover all direct installation costs. Over 3,600 homes and businesses across Scotland are already benefitting from the R100 SBVS with another 600 in the pipeline, ensuring residents in our hardest-to-reach communities have access to superfast broadband speeds.”

The difficult reality here is that voucher schemes are useful, but they will only get you so far toward solving the problem and require a fair bit of local organisation in order to work at their best (this can be a bit like herding cats). Increasing the value of such vouchers would perhaps help, but some sparse rural communities will still be too expensive to serve via full fibre networks (build costs can sometimes reach into the £1-2m range).

The voucher scheme does support other technologies too, such as Satellite, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) and 4G / 5G mobile, but each has its own caveats, depending upon the setup. For example, some FWA operators are only present in some areas and may not be able to deliver to all premises, while satellite services tend to be poor unless they’re from a LEO network like Starlink (not exactly the cheapest solution). As for 4G and 5G, the coverage is improving, albeit very slowly, and it’s much harder to guarantee a stable 30Mbps+ speed with all the issues of variable mobile signals etc.

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The reality is that some of those in the most disadvantage areas may end up having to wait for improvements under the next £5bn Project Gigabit scheme. According to the Building Digital UK (BDUK) agency, some 410,000 premises across Scotland may need support from public funding to help them gain access to a gigabit (1000Mbps) broadband service in the future (here) – this could rise if existing plans (inc. commercial builds) fall short. The UK Government’s Project Gigabit scheme has thus allocated £450m to help Scotland tackle this problem (here) and the procurement is due to begin soon.

Ofcom recently predicted (here) that Scotland’s full fibre coverage will reach around around 78-83% by May 2026, while gigabit-capable broadband (FTTP and Hybrid Fibre Coax) would deliver 83-85% by that same date, although commercial builds and R100 will continue to shrink this gap until c.2028. Project Gigabit aims for “nationwide” (c.99%) coverage of gigabit-capable broadband to be achieved by the end of 2030.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
1 Response
  1. Avatar photo GaryH says:

    Sad fact the vouchers as you say are in many areas practically worthless. In genuinely ‘rural’ areas they barely make a dent in the build cost even when pooled.
    When R100 wont touch your area and youre in bottom of the heap for Project Gigabit £5k subsidy wont make it affordable.

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