In My Opinion: Iain Hepburn: How to make Scotland a real digital powerhouse

WHAT would it take to make Scotland a real digital powerhouse and bridge the hefty gap between broadband availability and sign-up in this country?

How about if it was free? Think that would make a difference?

The week before last, Holyrood’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, revealed the next stage of the Government’s drive to establish a Scottish Digital Network – the new backdoor state broadcaster the SNP Government wants to set up – to be paid for, hopefully, out of the TV licence fee.

A proposed amendment to the Scotland Bill has been put to Westminster which, if approved, would allow the Scottish Government the power to set up its own public service broadcasters, change the sporting ‘crown jewels’ list, and have a bit more say over the licence fee spend.

But as I pointed out on my website recently, the SDN says little about digital, beyond some wishy washy comments about encouraging the drive to take up broadband.

So here’s a radical idea that would cement Scotland’s attempts to be a creative and economic digital powerhouse, solve the impact problems the SDN would have on BBC Scotland and STV, help bolster access to existing news organisations and try to end the country’s digital social exclusion problems.

Take that £75 million a year that the SDN would cost to run and use it to give every man, woman and child free broadband in Scotland.

Don’t boot the backside out it – nobody’s expecting superfast broadband installed in every household for free. Cap it if necessary at 3-4MBps, but make it available for free to every citizen this side of Hadrian’s Wall.

We live in a country where, currently, prescriptions are free. Eye tests are free. Tuition fees are free and pensioners get free travel across the country. If internet access really is as vital as water and electricity, as former PM, Gordon Brown, boldly claimed two years ago, then let’s make it easy for everyone. Give them all broadband for nowt.

Businesses or consumers wanting higher speed services – super-fast broadband – can pay a premium, the same as they would if they wanted to go private rather than NHS for medical treatment, or private rather than state school for education. It’s their choice, their money – they can make that extra investment.

But giving everyone a baseline service of broadband across Scotland, regardless of location or economic background, would solve many problems.

Last month’s report, The Review of ICT infrastructure in the Public Sector in Scotland, acknowledged that 99 per cent of Scots have access to a basic broadband service of at least 512kbps – although at best that speed could only marginally be called broadband – yet 34 per cent of Scots (by population, 59 per cent by geography) have no broadband access.

And the figures detailed in Scotland’s Digital Future: A Strategy for Scotland, from earlier this year, are startling. Scotland is the worst place in the UK for broadband take-up – with Glasgow and Lanarkshire having just 53 per cent of the population taking up high speed internet services, and just 44 per cent of homes – significantly below even the Scottish average – having ownership of a computer.

Except, of course, a computer isn’t necessarily how people access the internet these days. Of those 66 per cent without a computer, there’s a strong probability – based on broadcasting regulator, Ofcom’s most recent data – that they have access to digital TV, mobile phones or games consoles.

I was speaking to a friend of mine recently who works with the Glasgow Housing Association, who told me of a project they’d been running in some of their properties. It allowed tenants to make use of a red button service on the Community Channel to interact with the association, pay bills and so on. Given that 95 per cent of households in Glasgow have access to digital TV in some form, it’s clear that digital engagement in Scotland doesn’t need to be driven via the laptop, but by the set top.

Which takes us back to Hyslop and her SDN. At the briefing she gave she suggested the public service remit of the proposed channel would allow for, say, people to upload their health check results. This is smart thinking – and fits with the GHA’s current approach and the Ofcom findings on digital update in the country. But to do so requires an adequate broadband infrastructure to allow two-way communication successfully.

Increasingly, thanks to Freesat and the like, TVs and DVB boxes are web-enabled or have an ethernet connection, but they would also need a platform for content and data to be sent both ways. Investing with Scottish devcos to develop such a platform which meets the needs of the country would both aid that sector and help develop a uniquely tailored infrastructure.

Scotland’s Digital Future – A Strategy for Scotland makes the point: “The biggest challenge in encouraging people to go online is likely to be persuading them that it is worth their while to do so, and that the benefits to their quality of life will significantly outweigh the cost (either in time or money) of using digital technology.

“People are much more likely to do this if they can see how technology directly relates to their own interests, whether these are family history, sports information, online shopping or keeping in touch with distant friends and relatives.”

So what if you were to remove the cost entirely? If those struggling to justify the cost of £25 a month for broadband against putting food on the table don’t have to make that justification, and have a platform that suits their own digital life – is that not something that is more likely to encourage take-up and end Scotland’s online social exclusion problem?

Generating content for this service can also kill a couple of other birds with the same stone. Data infrastructures and useful local information from council and government websites, formatted and accessible at the touch of a red button. News from local providers; every news organisation in Scotland likes to talk a good game when it comes to putting themselves over as a digital provider. Basic feeds, augmented by pics, video or whatever else, and relevant to each local area. Partnerships with hyper-local news services to augment and bolster the service provided by a ‘primary’ news content supplier.

It would provide exposure to hardworking local news providers, supplement the content for regional news publishers and expose their combined work to an audience not necessarily engaged by either on a platform they’re confident and familiar with.

A pipe dream? Maybe. Yet it’s not a massive undertaking – the content largely exists already, it’s just a case of integrating it at the relevant point. And what you end up with is, basically, McCeefax. On a local scale, with some bells and whistles. Easy to use, easy to navigate, and relevant to the user – and the platform they’re on.

So, my manifesto for a truly digital network for Scotland:

(1) Dump the plans for a new state broadcaster – another TV channel producing four hours of tartan-tinged telly a night won’t make a difference to anyone except the odd independent producer, and will ultimately cause more harm than good to the existing broadcast services in Scotland.

(2) Take the money earmarked for the broadcast channel, and use it to provide a free baseline 3MB broadband service and router for every home in Scotland. Anyone who wants faster speeds, or industrial use, can pay a premium to ISPs, etc to make their own arrangements.

(3) Take the bandwidth earmarked for the broadcast channel, and use it to launch a cross-platform interactive Scotland channel. Something accessible via the web, App or set-top box. Content for this would be created via a partnership of local community bodies, councils, Holyrood and local media – for instance, everything from the Durris transmitter northwards could have a news feed from the P&J, Tayside and Perthshire from The Courier, Edinburgh and Lothians from The Scotsman and Glasgow and West from the The Herald – early last year, all those papers were part of the Scottish News Consortium who wanted to run a publicly-funded news service on Channel 3 until the Tories scuppered it.

Would it cost more than £75 million a year to run? Probably. But what cost ending digital social exclusion in Scotland, providing engagement with the media and consumer on a level and platform they are comfortable with, and sending a message that Scotland truly is a digital pioneer?

Because when it comes to the Race Online, Scotland’s in danger of being the asthmatic fat kid on sports day, gamely having a go at the 400m to try and keep up with his pals, yet puffing his way into last place.

Iain Hepburn is director of brand journalism with Contently Managed, and former digital editor of the Daily Record. A version of this column originally appeared at