Scottish Government investment of £120 million will bring superfast broadband to communities across the Highlands and Islands, Alex Neil said today.
The Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment said the funding will ensure homes and businesses across some of Scotland's most rural areas could get the benefits of next generation broadband for the very first time.
The Highlands and Islands, with the help of public investment, already have basic broadband provision to around 99 per cent of premises.
This investment will mean Highlands and Islands Enterprise, who are in discussions with BT, can roll out a programme to deliver world class connectivity for the region. This will call for a broad range of technical solutions, for example, by laying underground cables and in some cases, sub-sea cables to connect island communities.
Speaking via the Convention of Highlands and Islands, Mr Neil said:
"Scotland's ambition to deliver world-class digital connectivity by 2020 has received a boost today, with the announcement of £120 million for the Highlands and Islands.
"Everybody in the Highlands and Islands recognises the importance of access to superfast broadband, not just for the future of our local economies but indeed for the future of our children, for our education, our health and every aspect of life in the modern world.
"Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which is currently in discussion with BT, has been a driving force in developing a project to find solutions to the challenges of bringing next generation access to businesses and communities in the region. I am pleased to see a continuing commitment to work with local authorities across the region to make sure that by working in partnership, we are truly able to meet the ambitions of local people and businesses.
"Whether it's a small business competing in the global market through the use of superfast broadband, or whether it's the granny and grandpa talking to their grandchildren in New Zealand, superfast broadband can change the lives of people for the better in these rural communities."
"This substantial funding injection will bring those improvements to people across the Highlands and Islands. This only the start, with investment from local government and the private sector, we can we can continue to increase economic growth, create jobs and bring communities closer together.
Alex Paterson, Chief Executive of HIE, said: "This funding puts the Highlands and Islands on track to deliver the largest and most challenging rural broadband project in the UK. By bringing together the expertise and investment of both the private and public sector we want to roll out a service which will change the face of the region. Businesses and communities will see benefits where they matter most including in education, in supporting healthcare services and by opening up new markets. Our ultimate aim is for all parts of the Highlands and Islands to benefit and this news brings us a step closer to our goal."
New Start Highland
New Start Highland is a Social Enterprise serving communities in the Highlands. Its ethos and practical activities are changing the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society who have experienced a period of challenge or crisis.
Last year the social enterprise, which recycles or re-uses household furniture and goods, successfully diverted over 550 tonnes of items which could otherwise have ended up in landfill sites.
New Start also provides work, training and volunteering opportunities to people within our communities who have found it difficult to get into employment.
The social enterprise has seen significant growth since it was established in 1999. The need for its services are increasing partly as a result of community demand and partly due to the current economic climate. Earlier this year Enterprise Minister Fergus Ewing opened their new £1 million facility in Inverness which provides warehouse and office accommodation, meeting and training facilities, and starter units for new businesses.
The charity's development has been supported by Social Investment Scotland, as well as from HIE, the Highland Housing Alliance Charities Trust and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).
Technology is playing a major part in New Start's success. As well as developing their server and software systems to support their recycling and warehouse activities, the business has also launched Epick.co.uk, an online furniture store selling new products. This site provides an income stream which allows New Start to expand its services which ultimately help transform people's lives.
James Dunbar, Chief Executive of New Start Highland, commented: "The roll out of super fast broadband in the Highlands and Islands will facilitate greater ease of communication with our broad range of customers as well as between our seven operating bases. This will contribute to this Highland business remaining competitive.
Business Services and Homeworking
The business services sector is growing in the Highlands and Islands and the introduction of a faster broadband infrastructure has the potential to attract new investment and create hundreds of jobs across the region.
Over the past two decades, the number of contact centres has grown and the industry supports around 4,000 jobs. Industry leaders report the region's workforce consistently hits levels of performance that outstrip other parts of the UK.
The sector offers career paths across a diverse range of specialisms including retail, finance, IT, legal and medical. Demand is so high from investors that Highlands and Islands Enterprise is collating a skills register to highlight the region's talent and to keep its members informed of new opportunities as they arise.
Close working between the private and public sectors also means the Highlands and Islands is at the forefront of developing flexible, cost effective and sustainable methods of remote working.
The region is constantly looking at opportunities for further growth. One key focus has been looking at alternative ways of working, and particularly for potential workers in remote and rural areas - including home and community working.
Commercial pilot projects have highlighted the benefits of homeworking including increased flexibility, higher performance and higher staff retention. As well as cost benefits to the employer there are exciting prospects for workers, particularly in remote areas where transport can be a problem.
As super fast broadband rolls out there is the prospect of increased investment as more data intensive work can be delivered from the region. HIE will be working with communities to ensure that local people can take advantage of the opportunities the developing technologies provide.