Broadband to be ‘fifth utility’

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There needs to be more ambition by the Westminster Government to tackle the challenge of rural connectivity said Borders MP Calum Kerr.

As the SNP’s digital spokesperson at Westminster Mr Kerr led his party’s contribution during last Tuesday’s debate on the second reading of the Government’s Digital Economy Bill in the House of Commons, saying: “We want to see more ambition from the government on meeting the challenges of creating high quality rural coverage.

“The UK may have one of the most competitive digital communications markets out there, but for the final five per cent who struggle to access networks, this is irrelevant.

“Rural communities already have to deal with numerous challenges such as poorer access to transport infrastructure, so we must ensure that they are not excluded from the digital superhighways of the future.”

The Digital Economy Bill will include measures to institute a Universal Service Obligation for broadband providers – which will see a regulatory regime put in place similar to that which governs the utilities sector - gas, water electricity etc.

Mr Kerr welcomed this but stressed that it had to be implemented in a way that addresses the concerns of consumers in remote areas: “It’s welcome that this Bill takes steps to positon broadband as the ‘fifth utility’, but with that new status comes a greater responsibility upon providers and regulators to provide equality of access wherever that’s feasible.”

“As we talk increasingly of forms of ‘digital citizenship’ it is absolutely vital that large swathes of the country do not become second-class citizens by default or oversight.”

Broadband access and speed was the subject of a special meeting of the Berwickshire Area Forum earlier this year and Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire MSP John Lamont has also spent a considerable amount of time on dealing with constituents’ complaints on the subject, his take on the Westminster debate being: “After record investment in digital infrastructure from the UK Government it is encouraging that we are on track to provide 95% of premises with superfast broadband by the end of next year.

“Reaching that final 5%, the category which rural areas of the Borders falls under, will be helped significantly by the introduction of a universal service obligation.”