Connectivity 200 times slower in isles than in cities demands a real universal service obligation


Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, has highlighted the “chasm” in connectivity between cities and island communities in a speech to Parliament. Mr Carmichael highlighted a factor of 200 between many islanders’ connections and those found in cities in calling for a recognition of market failure for rural and island connectivity. Highlighting outrageous quotes given to connect households under the “Universal Service Obligation”, he also called on the national and devolved governments to work together and reduce confusion and competing programmes for high-speed internet.

Speaking in the House, Mr Carmichael said:

“It is almost a cliché to say that the pandemic has opened our eyes to what is possible with good-quality connectivity. From the northern isles’ perspective, we see it rather differently. The pandemic has shown us what is possible for other people because so many people in my constituency are left bumping along on speeds that are less than 2 megabits per second.

“I joined the 21st century just a couple of weeks ago, when I bought myself an iPhone 12, which has 5G capability. I speed tested it as I was coming up for the debate today. I got a speed test of 227 megabits per second download and 39 megabits per second upload. We have spoken for years about a digital divide, but that divide is now a chasm.

“For Orkney and Shetland, the idea that internet speeds and access to the internet should be more than 200 times greater in SW1 than in KW15, 16 and 17, and ZE1, 2 and 3 illustrates the nature of the problem we face. It speaks eloquently about the failure. Simply leaving it to the private sector is what has produced the situation today.

“My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross [Jamie Stone] asked “Who is responsible for this?” We have this constantly in Scotland: on the one hand, there is the provision made by the Scottish Government; and, on the other, we have schemes funded by the UK Government. The difficulty is that neither of them gives us what we need.

“This House legislated for a universal service in broadband. Constituents of mine get quotes from BT for that and they hear of £50,000, £60,0000 or £70,000 for a broadband connection to get them to 10 megabits per second. If that is only available to people who have a spare £50,000, £60,0000 or £70,000 lying around the house, it is hardly a universal service.

“However, my constituents are also frustrated at the lack of certainty and community consultation we see from the R100 scheme of the Scottish Government. We still do not know what they are going to deliver and when we are going to get it. All the signs are that the problems that we have had—a service to be deployed in the isles that is designed in Edinburgh; what people in Edinburgh think we can get and we need—are going to be there again. The most remote and the most economically fragile communities in my constituency still risk being left behind.

“It should not be rocket science. Surely, with a bit of will, the Governments could speak to each other and do better than this.”


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