False Doorway

Iain Hepburn is a journalist, podcaster and the former digital editor of the Daily Record and editor of STV Local. He is currently a multimedia producer, director of brand journalism with social media agency Contently Managed and a misanthropic commentator on the media.

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A real digital network for Scotland

As the song goes, stop me if you’ve heard this one before...

This week, the infrastructure committee at Holyrood hears evidence from interested parties on the state of Scotland’s broadband services. Or, as I like to think of it, Scotland’s Broadband services in a state.

I’ve been banging on about this all summer - a position vindicated by Ofcom’s Communications Market Report, which showed how the nation’s broadband take-up had stalled.

We live in a nation where supporting digital technologies is seen as a secondary concern at best, an embarrassment at worse. Those in charge - be it in government, in business or in the media, like to talk a good game about digital and embracing the future. But so far it’s just been that - talk.

Here’s an example. Next year, Holyrood will invest a mind-blowing £1.5m in encouraging the good people of Scotland to get broadband. £1.5m. This is around a tenth what it invests in BBC Alba - a TV channel whose audience, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, we still do not officially know.

At the same time, the Government is covetously eyeing up a hefty £75m - either from the licence fee or from the money raised by analogue spectrum sale - to fund the wishy-washy state-broadcaster-in-all-but-name that is the Scottish Digital Network.

And there, in a nutshell, is the killer clue that gives away just how little those running the nation understand - or apparently care - about the need for a true digital infrastructure in Scotland. Because this is a body that feels spending tens of millions a year on setting up another new TV channel, broadcasting for just a few hours a day, should be a higher priority, writ large in law, than bridging the substantial digital poverty gap that blights our country..

The key to ensuring Scotland has a digital future at all, let alone a ‘fit-for-purpose’ communications network is proper, necessary investment to ensure a base level of broadband is available to everyone in the country, regardless of economic circumstance.

So here’s my ‘radical’ plan - something that would genuinely move Scotland to the front of the queue when it came to digital innovation and infrastructure: Take that £75m a year that’s currently earmarked for the Scottish Digital Network, and use it to create a genuine digital network for Scotland - free broadband for every man, woman and child in the country.

Set a base-line level of speed. 3Mbps should do it. Anyone who wants faster, flashier services can, in effect, go private. But if the internet is, as former PM Gordon Brown insists, as vital as our other basic services, then why not offer it under the same conditions as the NHS, prescriptions, eye tests and travel for pensioners

In Glasgow just half of all homes are broadband-connected. Half. Let that sink in. The country’s largest city is one of the worst when it comes to connectivity. When people such as Martha Lane Fox spout on and on about digital champions to help communities engage with the online world, they overlook the fact that for many, it’s not a world they can even access, let alone engage with.

Broadband only solves part of the problem of bridging the digital poverty gap, of course, but it solves a big part, especially since online access isn’t necessarily about having even a basic home computer.

A friend who works with the Glasgow Housing Association recently told me of a project they’d been running in some of their properties, which allowed tenants to make use of a red button service via the Community Channel to interact with the association.

It meant they could get information, pay bills and so on - all going online, all without the need for a computer.  Given that 95% of households in Glasgow have access to digital TV in some form, it’s clear that digital engagement in Scotland doesn’t necessarily need to be driven via the laptop, but by the set top.

That’s where the value of a Scottish Digital Network truly is - not in producing a few hours of extra news and entertainment per night, but in providing a platform to let the digitally disenfranchised finally get access to the online market they’ve been missing out on.

As a TV channel, it does little except take money away from BBC Scotland, advertising revenue from STV and keep a few indie producers in tea and biscuits for another few years. As a platform for connecting the nation, a true digital network offers so much more.

With smartphones and set top boxes, we bypass the need for traditional computer connections. With a free broadband infrastructure, we open up Scotland to being truly connected, truly digital. Nobody loses out from a connected Scotland - business, commerce, media and government reaps the benefits of an engaged nation.

It would take a brave government to ditch the chance to launch a propaganda channel and do something as altruistic as give the nation the internet for free - particularly as the benefits won’t be felt immediately, but years and possibly generations down the line. But when the infrastructure committee meets this week to talk about improving the nation’s online health, I would urge them to consider taking that risk.

Think of it as a steroid boost to make sure we’re not left behind in the Race Online.

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