Outstanding in his Field: Minister Invited to Work From Pasture

FURIOUS Highlanders blighted by snail speed internet in a rural community have set up an office in a cow field – and invited the man responsible for the nation’s broadband to work from it for a day.

Angry locals in a Moray beauty spot dreamt up the stunt after being brushed off by Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands.

Now they have set up the ultimate “remote office” – a workplace in a field in rural Finderne, near Forres, and challenged the SNP Minister to sample the realities of rural broadband for himself.

Pery Zakeri is the Development Manager of the Finderne Development Trust, which has been tirelessly working to bring fast broadband to Finderne since June 2019. The group is angry about Scottish Government delays in providing vouchers to help Scots improve their web access.

She said: “Working from a desk in a field in the heart of our rural community will soon let Mr Wheelhouse get a taste of the everyday reality for those trying to run a business or home school kids in this part of the world. 

“We’ve even seen people forced to leave the area because they can’t continue with university studies while living in their family homes because the connectivity is so bad.

“There are days when you’d be more successful getting a usable connection by trying to plug your phone or computer into a turnip, or maybe a passing cow. It’s the same story for remote and rural communities across the north of Scotland.

“What we want to show him is that you can have everything you need for a workplace or home office – but in 2021 it’s pretty much worthless without a functioning broadband connection.”

Families and businesses covered by the Finderne Development Trust have faced years of frustration with internet connection speeds, worsened by the pressures of the Coronavirus lockdowns. 

Initially they attempted to pursue a Community Fibre Partnership and pinned their hopes on getting superfast fibre connections for the 498 properties in the area. However, those dreams were dashed when the door was slammed shut by Openreach in mid-December.

Now the community has all of its hopes pinned on Mr Wheelhouse’s flagship R100 – Reaching 100% programme, which promises to deliver 30 Megabits per second (Mbps) to every home and business in Scotland by the end of 2021.

However, the R100 programme has been hit by a series of delays and, as Finderne residents have been told that it could take between 4-5 years to be delivered, the community claims the Government has fumbled the rollout of interim support vouchers.

The Trust claims those £400 vouchers would help families and businesses pay for short term solutions to help them achieve faster connectivity until R100 is delivered. For most, that would simply mean offsetting the cost of slightly faster mobile connections.

But the interim vouchers will not be made available until delivery of R100 begins later this year – meaning further agonising delays for Finderne and other affected communities across Scotland.

Pery added: “Why we are so angry at the moment is that we’ve been in discussions with Mr Wheelhouse, via our local MSP, Richard Lochhead, and among our requests for help and information, we asked if it might be possible to reverse this ridiculous policy. 

“After waiting months for his response, we finally received what amounted to a patronising lecture about the history of the R100 programme – something we are very aware of having undertaken considerable research into broadband.

“And he didn’t respond to us at all on the issue of the interim voucher scheme, which has infuriated everyone. It really was the only point we wanted to hear from him on, as it is the best option to financially help and support people and businesses in the North of Scotland to improve their broadband connection, without affecting their inclusion in the R100 roll out plans.

“If Mr Wheelhouse cares to take up our ‘remote working’ challenge for a day, he’ll soon understand the same levels of disappointment that he’s left us feeling in our community and no doubt many similar remote and rural communities across Scotland.”

Finderne is an outstandingly beautiful part of rural Scotland covering a number of villages and small communities including Rafford, Dunphail and Edinkillie. The area is renowned for farming, forestry and salmon fishing along the River Findhorn.

Finderne Development Trust was founded in 2018 to driver sustainable regeneration of the entire area, creating a community where people want to live, work and visit. Its work in the past year has seen the charity help the community through lockdown, supporting local business to create new apprenticeships for young people, while also creating another full-time job in the community this year.

A Call for Help From Scottish Government to Prioritise Rural Broadband Connections

 The Finderne Community Council (FCC) and Finderne Development Trust (FDT), representing the area south of Forres, are asking for urgent intervention by the Scottish Government to prioritise work on improvements to the broadband network in rural Moray. The cry for help follows Openreach’s announcement of enhancements to Forres’s broadband capacity. 

The improvement to broadband connectivity is one of the key priority projects for the local development trust and they have been exploring various options since June 2019. Their attention became focussed on a potential Community Fibre Partnership when the Scottish and UK Governments announced voucher schemes to assist with internet access upgrades. 

Brian Higgs, the FDT Chairperson explains 

“We were steered towards developing a Community Fibre Partnership as the only way to quickly provide a future proofed option for the local community. These partnerships are delivered by Openreach and over the last 2 months we have requested information and support from them to no avail. Openreach have refused to provide detailed cost information required to evaluate the options. 

With Openreach’s announcements about Gigabit services in Forres it is patently obvious that the commercial drivers far outweigh their protestations about supporting rural communities. They are a business, and perhaps we should not have expected anything else. The fact, however, that our local MSP is publicly supporting Openreach’s prioritisation is saddening.” 

The typical connection speeds across Finderne are 2Mbps, with existing speeds in Forres being around 60Mbps. The upgrade to Gigabit speeds, proposed by Openreach, would mean that town centre internet connections were 500x faster than those of the rural areas. 

Howard Davenport, the FCC Secretary, said 

“Openreach, with Scottish Government blessing, is prioritising Ultrafast, Gigabit capacity broadband, for residents of Forres over desperately needed upgrades of the dreadful internet connectivity in out-of-town areas. 

Rural communities such as Burgie, Rafford and Dunphail, which can hardly be described as “remote and hard to reach” are being put at the back of the queue in favour of town centre upgrades”. Issues with broadband access is a topic raised frequently by Finderne residents 

“We have been advised that we will not even be told if we will be part of the Government’s R100 programme (which would deliver at least 30Mbps) until late summer 2021 and even then, if we are lucky enough to be in the plan, it could be 2024 before we see any work done. 

There are clearly limited resources available to deploy on improving the situation and it is totally wrong that people with existing 50+Mbps services are being prioritised over people with less than 2Mbps. 

There is an Interim Voucher Scheme, designed to provide short term, “stop gap”, improvements but this currently will not be available until late 2021. We, and the FDT, have asked the Scottish Government, via Richard Lochhead MSP, to change the rules on this interim voucher and help rural communities immediately. 

The need for decent broadband connectivity has been exacerbated by COVID and the requirement for more people to work from home. Now is the time for the Scottish Government to step up and show that it understands, and supports, the needs of rural communities”