Orkney Islands Council is continuing to lobby both the UK and Scottish Governments for improved access to telecommunication networks, as the digital divide continues to disadvantage many in Orkney.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown and current tier three measures have emphasised the importance of connectivity with those people and places where broadband coverage is extremely inadequate having suffered more from disruption to daily living than those with robust connections.
OIC Leader James Stockan shared his frustration at the ongoing challenges which face families and businesses across the county due to poor connectivity and a lack of action by Governments, but assured it was high on the Council’s agenda.
“Given the challenges of living and working in a rural area, delivering improved connectivity across Orkney is already a high priority for the Council, to mitigate against the effects of distance and isolation, to allow businesses and the public sector to modernise, and to deliver improved quality of living including improved opportunities for remote education, learning and employment for residents.
“In December 2020, that BT signed a ‘North Lot’ contract for the Scottish Government’s R100 broadband programme, pledging to deliver superfast broadband to 100 per cent of premises in 2021 – however, given the ongoing pandemic this is likely to be delayed further and regrettably it is expected that this contract will still not provide appropriate broadband access for areas of Orkney. The Council have pressed the Scottish Government seeking an ‘outside in’ approach – whereby areas with the poorest connectivity are prioritised within the R100 programme.
“We have also urged the Scottish Government seeking to ensure that voucher schemes are island proofed to ensure residents with poor connectivity can access and local Internet service providers can deliver improved services.
“Our Education Service has provided devices, including iPads and Chromebooks, top up credit for those with 4G connectivity and advice to parents to optimise connectivity within their homes. We are proactively seeking sustainable solutions to improve connectivity in Orkney.”
To date Orkney has received Scottish Government funding of £142,000 to address digital disadvantage, including £54,000 set aside to address the connectivity challenge. So far the Education Service has purchased 145 Chromebooks and 130 iPads, all of which have now been allocated. OIC also secured 20 Chromebooks and 100 iPads from the Connecting Scotland scheme – giving a total, so far, of 395 devices.
There is a further additional £45M from Scottish Government nationally to support schools through the pandemic, including through provision of connectivity. OIC awaits detail of what the allocation will be for Orkney.
Councillor Stockan continued: “Orkney faces some of the most challenging connectivity issues in the UK. It is vital that the Scottish Government level the playing field so that our communities, our children and young people, and our businesses, are not left behind in a world that increasingly depends on the most modern mobile and wireless networks.
“As previously mentioned, we have received £54,000 of Scottish Government funding to be used for digital connectivity. At least £33,000 of this is set aside for connectivity devices and data packages and we hope to convince Scottish Government to allow us to use the entire amount for this purpose.
“Providing connectivity solutions is far more complex than providing devices. The default solution promoted by Scottish Government is to provide, where necessary, a Vodafone MiFi device. Unfortunately, Vodafone is not a viable solution for many Orkney families due to issues surrounding a lack of signal, so we must be more creative.
“We continue to explore any available options open to us to improve on this situation, however, the challenges faced by Orkney are largely infrastructure related and require significant investment by the Government to fulfil their connectivity commitments.”