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Last Updated:  Monday, 10 March, 2003, 15:10 GMT
McConnell's broadband pledge
Hand on mouse
Broadband access will "open doors"
Rural communities in Scotland must be given full access to broadband, according to the first minister.

Jack McConnell told the Convention of the Highlands and Islands in Elgin that remote areas would not be geographically disadvantaged.

The first minister's drive came as the executive also promised extra cash to boost rural bus, ferry and community transport services.

The cash forms part of the executive's Rural Transport Fund and provides 5.8m for 2004-5 and a further 6.1m in 2005-6.

Addressing the convention, Mr McConnell said six telephone exchanges would be upgraded to support broadband by BT Scotland with support from Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

The telephone exchange upgrades will cover Forres, Nairn, Dingwall, Buckie, Oban and Fort William.

The enterprise body has appealed to companies to help expand broadband technology.

'Great news'

Mr McConnell said: "This is exciting news for Scotland's rural communities, bringing broadband technology a step closer to some of those who can benefit from it most.

"Broadband means that geography need no longer be a disadvantage.

"It will allow schools in remote areas to access online learning and will open doors for the use of telemedicine as well as helping local authorities deliver modern services."

Bob Downes, of BT Scotland, said it was "great news" for the communities involved.

He said: "We hope this will be the first stage in a wider programme of upgrades in the north of Scotland.

First Minister Jack McConnell
Jack McConnell said geography would not be a disadvantage

"I've absolutely no doubt that once people in these communities have experienced broadband, they'll find there's no going back to the old, slow, dial-up days."

A milestone has been reached in the Pathfinder project, the first minister also said.

It aims to meet the broadband requirements of local authorities, schools and health services in the north and south of Scotland.

Seven suppliers will submit proposals to provide broadband services in the Highlands and a further six tenders have been selected for the south.

The successful tender for each Pathfinder area will be chosen in autumn with work scheduled to start next year.

Scottish National Party spokesman Kenny MacAskill MSP said the investment in broadband for rural communities was "long overdue".

He said: "The announcement today from the executive is therefore a start but Scotland still lags well behind other countries such as Ireland, Sweden and Finland in the use of broadband."

Argyll and Bute councillor Ian Gillies said: "I view this announcement as an important step towards this council's goal of achieving a modern telecommunications infrastructure in our council area."

Transport boost

Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace has announced an investment package to boost the performance of rural transport.

He said the Rural Public Passenger Transport Scheme would bolster services.

"Modern and efficient rural transport is vital for linking communities with jobs, health and leisure facilities and that is why it is one of the Scottish Executive's key priorities," he said.

"Rural areas have particular needs and we are committed to improving transport in these areas."

Local authorities will decide how best and where to allocate the investment.

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