Issue 5

IN MY VIEW...

By John Morrison, former BBC Scotland Chief Political Correspondent and Owner, Morrison Media

It always hurts when I click the “pay” button on the website for flights to the Western Isles. Usually between £250 and £300 painful. Beautiful destination. Horrible prices.

A recent visit to Lewis saw me start this article at a table in An Lanntair, the excellent arts centre in Stornoway, which is the hub of so much of the cultural activity in the island. Free access to broadband is one of the perks of the place, along with a supply of superb scones and coffee. It allowed me to keep on top of my emails hundreds of miles away from my base in Glasgow.   

However, internet speeds are less impressive. Within seconds of starting to watch a news report, the dreaded hour glass appeared to announce that the system was struggling to cope. I gave up.     

The issue of “connectivity” is not limited to the new technologies. The Scottish Newspaper Society, representing the publishers, has refused to pay an increase in the cost of the Loganair charter flight that brings newspapers from Aberdeen to Stornoway and Benbecula. The result is that newspapers are turning up a day late in many rural shops. Again, not good for the shops or the people.

Connectivity was also on the agenda at the recent SNP Spring conference. I sat in on a session organised by the Centre for Scottish Public Policy to discuss Future Cities, an issue that is of considerable interest to one of the companies I work with.

The always impressive Cabinet Secretary for Cities, Nicola Sturgeon, explained that although she was brought up in Ayrshire she is now very much a city girl, living in Glasgow and loving it. She is not on her own in this. Most Scots now live in cities.    

Earlier this year Glasgow’s leaders were delighted when the city won a £24 million pound UK Government grant to spend on projects that should make it the country’s first smart city. A big and, it seems, badly needed boost to connectivity.       

Travel should be improved with real-time information about traffic and apps to check that buses and trains are on time. The City Council is also promising to link up the CCTV cameras across the city with its traffic management unit in order to identify traffic incidents faster. Even pot-holes will have their own reporting app. This one promises to be extremely well used.  

Analytical software and security cameras will be used to help identify and prevent crime in the city and monitor energy levels to find new ways of providing gas and electricity to poorer areas where fuel poverty is a big issue.  But the problems of the digital divide go much deeper. This is a tale of two cities in one.

The problems created by digital deprivation or exclusion was highlighted recently in an excellent report from the Carnegie UK Trust: Across the Divide – Tackling Digital Exclusion in Glasgow. Its research concluded that nearly a quarter of UK homes and a third of households in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not have access to broadband in their homes. In Glasgow the figure is closer to 40%.

The report’s author concluded: “What is deeply concerning is that many of those without access are arguably those who may benefit the most from the advantages the internet might offer. 45% of UK households with an annual income of less than £17,500 do not have a broadband connection. In Scotland this rises to 60%.” He added: “If this growing digital divide is not successfully tackled then it will only serve to reinforce and widen existing inequalities – to the extent that a lack of internet access will increasingly come to represent both a symptom and a cause of poverty.”   

Clearly Glasgow is going to have to spend the £24 million grant wisely to close the digital gap. But the city is in a completely different time zone when you compare it to Austin, Texas or Kansas City where Google are introducing Internet speeds of 1-gigabit. Google Fiber will be 100 times faster than the service currently on offer in the two cities, transforming the lives of residents.

It means that you can watch five videos at a time, if you ever need to, with no sign of the dreaded buffering. High-def films can be down loaded in seconds.  And the Medical Centre at the University in Kansas City is already exploring pioneering uses for the faster technology to treat more patients for more ailments in their own homes.  

Education will also be a big winner, particularly for low-income families. The Federal Communications Commission reported recently that students with broadband at home have a 7% higher graduation rate, which is a very significant figure.  It suggests that broadband encourages students to study more, watch less television and improve their grades.    

Education, health, leisure all improved by faster connections. When you consider how the digital revolution has changed our own lives in the last decade, it is clear the real benefits of the 1-gigabit step change have not been dreamt of yet.
            
This quantum leap in Smart Technologies puts advances in this country into context. In the global economy where connectivity is king, we are behind and at risk of falling further behind the digital leaders.

But interestingly, at the Future Cities seminar many of the contributions that followed Nicola Sturgeon were from people outside the cities. From across rural Scotland they raised the same issues – digital black spots and slow connections. For people trying to run rural businesses this is a major, possibly even their biggest, issue. As the Carnegie UK Trust pointed out, digital deprivation can affect most aspects of the everyday lives of families: communication, education, job prospects, access to public services, access to cheaper products and access to information and knowledge.   

So while islanders will always be concerned about planes, ferries and fares the biggest challenge to island living in the future is digital connectivity. Fast and secure links are vital for rural business, the delivery of education and health services and ensuring that people feel plugged in. It is also at least part of the solution to rural depopulation. Young people will always want to feel connected to the rest of the world.
      
Connectivity though Smart Technologies holds the key to health, wealth and higher standards of living for everyone, regardless of income or geography. Delivering world-class connectivity for all Scots should be a top priority for all our politicians.

By John Morrison, former BBC Scotland Chief Political Correspondent and Owner, Morrison Media

Issue 5

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