Hunt Seeks to Reassure South of Scotland TV Viewers with Superfast Broadband Appeal

TV viewers in the south of Scotland seeking more news about their area may soon have their wishes answered, but it may first require the Scottish Government to match-fund Westminster plans to roll out superfast broadband in Scotland, to the tune of £69 million.

In Glasgow earlier today, Westminster Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, outlined his vision for local TV, calling himself a 'localist', when it came, for example, to political governance. He is currently on an UK tour, engaging in Q&As on plans to create 65 locations throughout the UK – nine in Scotland – which could become home to local TV channels.

In front of a high-powered audience, comprising some of Scotland's key media figures, he said that, partly because TV spectrum was being made available effectively for free, it is now, for the first time, cheaper to run a local TV channel than a local newspaper.

But in conceding the point that only 60 per cent of the UK population would have access to local TV via spectrum availability – meaning places such as the south of Scotland are not included – he argued that superfast broadband would help plug most of the gap, by being available to 90 per cent of the population.

But Westminster's £69 million identified for Scotland requires Scottish Government matching funds.

Were it to be sufficiently funded, superfast broadband should be up and running within four years, said Hunt.

Whether the Scottish Government is prepared to come up with the necessary match funding will become clearer when details of its three-year spending review are revealed laster this month. Earlier this week, the Scottish Government's 2011-12 Programme for Scotland pledged: “As part of the Spending Review 2011 – and to ensure Scotland is best placed to make the most of the digital revolution – we will set out plans for a Next Generation Digital Fund to accelerate the roll out of superfast broadband across Scotland, with a particular focus on rural areas. This will promote business and employment opportunities across the country.”

An estimated 250,000 viewers in the south of Scotland receive their Channel 3 news not from STV but from Newcastle-based Tyne Tees, which offers a six-minute opt-out service for viewers north of the border.

Hunt invited advocates of a south of Scotland local TV service to continue making the case to him. The first 20 of the 65 planned licences will be issued next summer by broadcasting regulators, Ofcom. Hunt said the licences would go to the “20 most enthusiastic bids”, that had an emphasis on local input.

Despite a tense exchange between him and Christine Grahame, MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale – which had Hunt saying the MSP's “tone does jar” – the Culture Secretary reassured that, one way or another, Grahame's constituents could have access to local TV news, even if via broadband rather than a TV transmitter, within four years.

That said, there were one or two within the audience who later told that there is nothing particularly complicated or costly – when it comes to transmitter issues – in relaying TV pictures to audiences in the south of Scotland.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Ensuring the availability of next generation broadband to all by 2020 is the primary commitment of the Scottish Government’s Digital Strategy. We aim to make significant progress on that target by 2015. However, the recent announcement from the UK Government of £68.8 million funding will only go a little way to helping us achieve that and in no way is this allocation a realistic contribution to meet our broadband requirement.

“People across the whole of the UK should have the same access to the benefits of highspeed connection and fair access to the digital revolution. Scotland should not be excluded from realising the benefits efficient broadband access brings including good for jobs and economic growth.

“We are working to develop a strategic national blueprint for broadband that will deliver a world-class broadband infrastructure and we have set up a special Cabinet sub-committee, chaired by Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, to focus on meeting Scotland’s Digital Strategy.

“We are already addressing the digital challenges in Scotland through a Next Generation Digital Fund.. However, with substantial Westminster cuts to our budget beginning to bite, the UK Government has fallen short of what was required for Scotland’s businesses, economy and local communities

“We will be looking at funding options in light of our forthcoming Spending Review but in the meantime, there are still many questions around the allocation for the Department for Culture Media and Sport to answer and we will be using every opportunity possible as we move forward to press the case for an increase in Scotland’s share of this funding allocation.”