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R100 failure 'could affect viability of living and working in Highlands and Islands'

By Alan Hendry

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North MP Jamie Stone is among a group of politicians who have warned that a failure to deliver the delayed R100 programme – Reaching 100 per cent of household with superfast internet connectivity – could affect the viability of living and working in the Highlands and Islands.

Liberal Democrat MPs and MSPs including Mr Stone, the Westminster representative for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, have written to the Scottish Government about the apparent threat to the R100 scheme.

This follows reports that legal action taken over the Scottish Government’s handling of procurement for the "northern lot" – including the Highlands and Islands, Angus, Aberdeen and Dundee – could mean that its European state aid protection could expire before the contract is actually awarded. Due to the legal challenge brought by Oxfordshire-based Gigabit over BT Openreach being awarded preferred status to take the contract forward, the already delayed programme now has no end in sight.

In a letter to Scotland's minister for energy, connectivity and the islands, Paul Wheelhouse, the group of Lib Dem MPs and MSPs ask for “reassurance that the Scottish Government is giving thought now to what happens in the event of the legal challenge being successful, or getting to the year end and state aid clearance cover being lost”.

The roll-out is already two years behind schedule, they point out.

The Lib Dems say: “Failure to deliver the R100 programme could have implications for the viability of living and working in the Highlands and Islands. As the current pandemic has graphically illustrated, access to high-quality, affordable broadband is an absolute necessity for businesses and households alike.

“Communities across the Highlands and Islands already have the lowest level of broadband and mobile coverage in the country. Further delays and the threat of cancellation of the Scottish Government’s planned broadband roll-out programme is therefore the last thing our constituents and communities need.

“With the government’s scheme bogged down in the courts, and state aid clearance due to run out at the end of the year, ministers need to spell out what their contingency arrangements are. Our constituents need to know that ministers have a Plan B, and that this won’t simply become another lost promise.”

Highland Council leader Margaret Davidson has also written to Mr Wheelhouse on the matter, insisting the north of Scotland must not be "disadvantaged by a digital divide".

Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron, the Conservatives' shadow finance secretary, has warned the Scottish Government that any further delay in the R100 programme risks keeping some parts of the region in “the digital stone age”.

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