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A scheme which was meant to ensure high-quality internet connection for everyone in rural and remote areas won't start in the Western Isles until at least 2026, it has been confirmed.

On Friday (28 July) the minister for small business, trade and innovation, Richard Lochhead, gave a written response to a question from Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron, in which he acknowledged that R100 contract work, scheduled for completion by 2021, won't even begin in the Western Isles until 2025.

From that date, he said, connection would begin for 2,206 properties in the Na h-Eileanan an Iar constituency under the R100 contract, with live connections planned to be available through 2026, 2027 and 2028.

Superfast broadband coverage in the Western Isles has, though, been lifted from just 1.3% in 2015 to the present figure of 80.5%, ‘as a direct result of Scottish Government intervention’ through preceding connection schemes.

Conservative MSP Donald Cameron said that it emerged in June that not a single business or residential property in the Western Isles had been connected through the R100 programme.

Some island customers are eligible for the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme, but it’s up to people and businesses to pursue that and, as of June this year, no-one had applied the voucher scheme in the Western Isles.

The Reaching 100% (R100) project promised to deliver high-speed broadband to every part of the country, with isles MSP Alasdair Allan saying in 2017: “Uniquely in the UK, the Scottish Government has given a commitment that 100% of properties across Scotland will have access to superfast broadband by 2021.”

In August 2019 it was reported that some of the subsea cables needed to get superfast broadband to the Western Isles had already been laid.

Residents of Great Bernera and of Grimsay were first to feel the benefit of connections bringing speeds up to 30Mbps, with 90km of new fibre cables laid to deliver the service.

Robert Thorburn, Openreach’s director for Scotland, said then: “This project is a game-changer for the people of the Western Isles, with a lasting legacy for the future.

“Technology is truly life-changing – opening up markets and innovation for businesses and connecting islanders to each other, the world and vital services.”

Yesterday, Donald Cameron said: "Islanders have been promised for years that things would get better in terms of digital infrastructure and the standard of broadband connection.

"But now they're being told they will have to wait a further three years for this to get up and running, and that's assuming this beleaguered scheme won't suffer any more delays.

"In that time, businesses will suffer from poor internet speeds and coverage, and risk being left behind their competitors in other parts of the world.

"As we've seen with recent bank closure announcements, the world is becoming more and more dependent on the internet.”

Mr Cameron’s parliamentary question followed a freedom of information request which revealed the lack of implementation in the islands of superfast broadband plans.

He asked the Scottish Government: “In light of its response to (the) Freedom of Information request, for what reason no premises in the Na h-Eileanan an Iar constituency have been connected to superfast broadband via the R100 scheme.”

Mr Lochhead’s written reply on Friday said: “The contract build for these premises is scheduled to begin in 2025, with live connections planned to be available through 2026, 2027 and 2028.

“Connections are delivered in line with plans submitted by BT plc as the successful bidder for the R100 North contract. The build is structured in phases that have been designed to maximise efficiency in order to deliver the greatest possible outcome for our investment.

“A further 1,975 premises in the Na h-Eileanan an Iar constituency are eligible for a connection through the R100 Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (R100 SBVS), offering up to £5,000 to secure a superfast broadband connection.

“This is a demand-led scheme and it is therefore a decision for residents and businesses whether or not they choose to secure a connection in this manner.

“The R100 programme builds on the success of the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme which made a significant contribution to broadband coverage in the Na h-Eileanan an Iar constituency, delivering five subsea cables and over 15,000 fibre broadband connections in the area.

“In April 2015, just before DSSB build began in the region, superfast coverage was just 1.3%. By the end of that year, it was already up to 25.4%, and now stands at 80.5% as a direct result of Scottish Government intervention.”

The picture shows a BT Openreach engineer working in Bernera in 2019 (BT Openreach).