The Scottish higher and further education funding councils have welcomed plans to extend access to high-speed internet services to more areas in Scotland.
Wendy Alexander, Scottish minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, has unveiled proposals to extend the availability of broadband services in two pathfinder areas, southern Scotland and the Highlands and Islands.
This is key to the Scottish Executive's Digital Scotland initiative for fast, reliable connections throughout the country. The north of Scotland already benefits from the high-tech UHI Millennium Institute, but the Executive's strategy is to extend broadband capacity into public buildings in rural areas, such as schools, hospitals, surgeries and libraries.
A Scottish Executive briefing paper says: "Training courses to develop individual skills will be offered, thereby encouraging private providers that there is a market for their services among rural businesses and consumers."
Ms Alexander said: "Through joined-up public procurement of broadband capacity we are helping to spread the economic benefits of the e-revolution more evenly throughout Scotland."
She said that by pooling the demand of different organisations, public spending power could be used to encourage competition between broadband providers.
The Connecting Scotland report anticipates that further and higher education will join in the aggregated purchasing strategy "in the medium term". This could be within three to five years.
A spokesperson for the Scottish funding councils said: "Rightly, the Executive has taken the view that the existing and planned further and higher education procurements were too far advanced, and too specialised, to be brought within its new plans for aggregation. However, the councils warmly support the principle of seeking to coordinate future public procurements... since this can only produce better value for money and improved infrastructure for Scotland."
The spokesperson said that all Scottish higher education institutions were connected to broadband networks at speeds of 155 Mbps. "The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has recently contributed to the reprocurement of the UK academic backbone, which connects Scotland to the worldwide internet and is engaged in two related procurements. One is to extend the backbone north to Aberdeen and Inverness and the other to reprocure metropolitan networks centred on Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen."
She added: "The Scottish Further Education Funding Council has recently completed a project to link all further education colleges to the academic network at speeds of 2 Mbps, and is collaborating with Shefc to obtain higher speeds as part of a joint procurement."
The two funding councils have been closely involved with the development of the Scottish Executive's broadband policy, and deputy director Bill Harvey recently completed a six-month secondment to the Digital Scotland unit.
He said: "It's a no-lose situation. The worst that happens is that people continue to compete for the market they've got, but if you make it more attractive for new companies to come into an area, this gives more competition and may lower prices."
He said higher education needed "massive bandwidth" compared with other sectors but could potentially achieve better deals if, for example, it were working with several hundred primary schools in a particular area.