While noting the improvements that have been made in recent years, the report highlights the challenges poor coverage can cause for rural communities in a 'digital-first' society, and proposes solutions to strengthen consumer rights and improve Government programmes encouraging investment by private providers.
Strengthening consumer rights
The report welcomes the existing 'right to exit' policy, under which consumers are entitled to leave a provider if the service they receive falls below that advertised. However, this policy only works if another provider is available for them to switch to – which is often not the case in rural areas. The Committee therefore recommends that Ofcom consults on automatic compensation in areas only serviced by one provider, where speeds fall below the minimum guaranteed level.
In addition, the report highlights that the language used to describe broadband services is often unclear. To ensure consumers know exactly what they are paying for, the report recommends that service providers should not be allowed to use the term 'fibre broadband' when they are in fact using copper technology which delivers much slower speeds.
Government delivery of broadband in Scotland
The report acknowledges the differences between the UK and Scottish Governments in their approaches to broadband delivery but highlights that both share a commitment to improving coverage for all. Given this shared aim, as well as an acceptance from both sides that the relationship needs to improve in this area, the Committee recommends that the two Governments find ways to effectively work together to provide coverage to the whole of Scotland – including on their two programmes, the UK Government's USO and the Scottish Government’s R100 programme, which both aim to provide broadband coverage to the most remote areas.
Broadband for the 'final 5%'
The report welcomes the actions of both Governments to provide broadband coverage to the "final 5%" because people in rural areas face a much greater challenge in getting connected.
The UK Government has announced its Universal Service Obligation (USO) which will give all consumers the right to request a connection of 10Mbps minimum download speed by 2020. While welcoming this commitment the Committee questions whether this speed will meet increasing consumer needs, and call on the Government to review this target and ensure it represents the absolute minimum speeds that consumers will receive.
The USO contains a 'reasonable cost threshold' of £3,400 for providing a property with a connection, with individuals paying any additional costs. The report highlights the real risk that some rural areas could be excluded by this threshold, and calls upon the UK Government to set out what additional support will be made available.
The report welcomes the funding that the UK Government has made available to businesses and local authorities, particularly through the Gigabit Voucher Scheme, but call on the UK Government to change the funding rules to make it easier for rural communities to benefit from this scheme.
The report recognises the vast improvements that Scotland has seen in mobile phone coverage, only 30% Scotland's land mass covered by 4G services from all operators. The Committee welcomes Ofcom's plan to require mobile operators to cover 76% of Scotland landmass, and call on Ofcom to monitor the impact this has on mobile coverage on Scotland's A and B roads, where poor coverage is causing particular problems for businesses operating on the move. The Committee also call on Ofcom to do more work to explore how consumer could roam between different networks in areas that are only served by one provider.
Reducing barriers to deployment
Providers were clear to the Committee that regulatory barriers to deployment could have a significant impact on the rollout of full-fibre and 5G infrastructure, despite welcome moves by the UK Government to reform the Electronic Communications Code and establish a Barrier Busting Task Force. In order to further reduce regulatory barriers and facilitate much-needed infrastructure deployment, the Committee says that a joint approach between the UK and Scottish Governments as well as local authorities, is essential.
Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Pete Wishart commented:
"Digital connectivity is an essential part of modern life and an indispensable tool for stimulating economic growth. Throughout the course of our inquiry, witnesses highlighted the value of reliable, fast broadband and mobile coverage and many members of the public and community groups got in touch to raises the problems they had getting online.
Scotland's challenging geography and remote communities make it one of the most difficult places to deliver broadband and mobile coverage in Europe, and while good progress has been made there is still more to do. Our report makes recommendations about the way forward and emphasises the importance of both Governments working together to make this happen."