Key objective of NPF4: To support the roll-out of digital infrastructure across Scotland so that the social, economic and environmental benefits of digital technologies are delivered in a way that keeps environmental impacts to a minimum.
Comments often focused on digital connectivity in rural areas, including the need to bridge the digital divide, caused by the disparity in digital connectivity between rural and urban areas. The implementation of the Shared Rural Network programme was seen as one way of tackling this divide, and it was also argued that development of the Digital Fibre Network, designated a National Development in NPF3, should continue as a National Development under NPF4.
Improving digital services in rural areas was considered important in supporting the growth of current businesses and attracting new ones, potentially through relocation from urban areas, with resulting job opportunities and support for local economies - such as tourism and schools, shops and restaurants. It was noted that connectivity in rural areas could also help reverse depopulation and the drift to urban centres (especially of younger people) and encourage a greater diversity of population. On a connected point, it was noted good connectivity supports remote working and reduces commuting. These changes were observed as contributing positively to climate change targets, by reducing travel times and CO2 emissions.
It was acknowledged that significant investment is needed to create a level playing field across Scotland, for example by providing ultra-fast broadband for businesses in rural areas. The issue of balancing operational infrastructure needs against environmental considerations in rural areas was highlighted.
It was noted that COVID-19 is leading to a 'new normal', with widespread use of many of the practical applications of digital connectivity likely to continue post-crisis. Various aspects of home and work life supported by digital connectivity were cited by respondents including:
- Home working/video conferencing.
- Education/online learning.
- Telehealth, with online consultations avoiding lengthy travel times to the nearest hospital.
- Online shopping and entertainment.
Others acknowledged that improved digital infrastructure, supporting fixed and mobile communications across all communities, is a necessity for Scotland's future resilience.
Mobile and digital connectivity, part of the Critical National Infrastructure, was seen as essential to the current and future delivery of frontline services (for example the NHS and other response services). It was noted that the 'Internet of Things' will include telehealth, connected ambulances, video-call medical appointments, greater use of just-in-time services for industry and 'smart' infrastructure (for example smart motorways and buildings). It was observed that systems should be adaptable and suitable for future technological changes and it was suggested that digital development should be community-led in rural areas, with communities able to own and manage digital systems. There was also a view that digital platforms could also be increasingly used to facilitate community engagement exercises.
Comments addressing the role of NPF4 and future planning policy in relation to digital connectivity included that:
- Digital connectivity should continue to be strategically important within the planning system, supporting the development of digital infrastructure across Scotland. NPF4 should support the improvement of existing mobile networks and the delivery of 5G, with this reflected in local planning systems. Connected devices and services require a high-speed mobile comms network which should be rolled out quickly across all areas, not just city centres, as this will help tackle multiple deprivation.
- NPF4 should consider the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme and align to Scottish Government's stated aspirations on connectivity and 5G contained in current digital strategies.
- Digital development should be future-proofed and potentially delivered on a 'rural-first' basis. Developments should ensure equal coverage across Scotland, addressing 'notspots'. Investment in fixed and mobile digital infrastructure should be supported post COVID-19, recognising its importance as the fourth utility.
- Redevelopment of existing communications infrastructure and need for new infrastructure should be addressed, with environmental considerations (including the visual impact of taller masts, where required by geography) balanced against social and economic benefits from improved mobile coverage. The retrofitting of infrastructure should be addressed, for example in conservation areas.
- NPF4 should encourage local planning authorities to engage with mobile network operators and ISPs to help facilitate the new 5G infrastructure - ideally by using the operators' Code of Best Practice.
- Local planning authorities should be pragmatic and understanding of the constraints of telecoms infrastructure - telecoms services will be needed across all parts of Scotland including conservation areas, national parks and areas of greenbelt. Local planning authorities should consider the impact of new homes and business development on existing digital comms infrastructure.
- New build housing should have digital infrastructure included as an integral part of the development, as should business premises. This will future proof digital accessibility and maximise connectivity for all socioeconomic groups.
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