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08 November 2019
Over the past 5 years the gap between superfast broadband availability in Wales and the UK as a whole has reduced dramatically, following investment led by the Welsh Government through its Superfast Cymru programme. The picture is different for mobile coverage, where Wales continues to score significantly worse on many measures compared to the UK average. So far the Welsh Government has not invested in mobile infrastructure, with rollout instead being led by the commercial decisions of mobile network operators.
This blog post provides an overview of digital connectivity, ahead of a Plenary debate on 12 November 2019.
Telecommunications remains reserved to Westminster. This means that the power to change the rules that govern broadband and mobile network deployment rests with communications regulator Ofcom and the UK Government.
The Welsh Government’s work in this area is therefore limited to grant funding – including grants for individuals, such as Access Broadband Cymru, and grants for telecommunications providers, such as Superfast Cymru – and use of other devolved powers – such as the planning system and business rates relief – to stimulate investment in digital networks.
In May 2019 Ofcom published its Connected Nations Update, which includes key statistics for broadband and mobile coverage in Wales and across the UK.
Looking back to 2014 we can see how superfast broadband and 4G mobile coverage has improved across the UK and Wales: Superfast broadband and 4G mobile coverage.
Superfast broadband coverage in Wales has almost converged with the UK average, whereas a gap in 4G coverage between Wales and the UK persists.
Superfast Cymru and its successor
Superfast Cymru was the Welsh Government’s superfast broadband programme, which aimed to ensure that about 96% of premises in Wales had access to superfast broadband. Public funding, from the UK Government, EU and the Welsh Government’s own resources, was given to BT to provide superfast broadband connections in areas that were not due to be connected by commercial services. The contract with BT was signed in 2012, and the first phase of the Superfast Cymru project finished in February 2018.
In 2017 the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee ran an inquiry into Digital Infrastructure in Wales. The report concluded:
Generally speaking, the view from stakeholders is that the Welsh Government’s Superfast Cymru project has delivered adequately in terms of the roll-out of infrastructure, but that there have been shortcomings in the way that the project has been communicated to those in the areas where it is active.
The Welsh Government is now working on the successor to the Superfast Cymru project, which is underpinned by a potential £80 million of public funds from the EU, UK and Welsh Governments. A “gainshare” clause in the Superfast Cymru contract meant that when the uptake of superfast services exceeded a set figure, the Welsh Government received a proportion of BT’s profits for investment in future broadband deployment.
BT Openreach has won all three lots, that will see it providing 26,000 premises with access to access to fast reliable broadband by March 2021 at a cost of nearly £22.5m. Ofcom estimates that the number of premises currently without access to superfast broadband in Wales is 156,000.
Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport (Lee Waters AM) provided a response on 4 February 2019 to a written question in which he provided numbers of premises by local authority that are to be included in the next phase of broadband rollout.
The latest Ofcom figures show that 93% of premises in Wales can access superfast broadband compared to a UK average of 95%. But the fact that Wales’s superfast broadband coverage gap with the UK has narrowed so significantly will be cold comfort to those in the 7% of premises in Wales still without access. Unconnected premises will be in increasingly remote and geographically hard-to-reach locations. This means they will need a higher per-premises subsidy to be connected than was the case with Superfast Cymru, which was designed to take fast broadband to the largest number of premises at the lowest cost. Will the budget for the Welsh Government has allocated be sufficient to reach this stubborn 7%?
Broadband voucher schemes
The Welsh Government also has two voucher schemes to support premises that are not reached by the Superfast Cymru project or its successor project:
- The Access Broadband Cymru scheme provides vouchers up to £800 to support getting a connection that delivers “a step change in speed” (up to 30 Mbps). This scheme provides grants to fund (or part-fund) the installation costs of new broadband connections for premises in Wales. It does not include monthly rental costs.
- Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme. The UK Government provides vouchers – worth up to £2500 – for small businesses and the local communities surrounding them to contribute to the installation cost of a gigabit-capable broadband connection. The Welsh Government provides additional funding – an additional £3,000 for businesses up to a certain size and an additional £300 per residential property – towards these costs.
Mobile Action Plan: role in improvements in mobile coverage “unclear”
Since 2017, the Welsh Government has had a Mobile Action Plan. This focuses on how it will use its devolved powers – such as the planning system and business rates relief – to stimulate investment in mobile networks. In January 2019 the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee published a report into the Welsh Government’s action in this area.
Although mobile coverage has increased in Wales since 2017, the Committee said that the role the Action Plan had played in this improvement was “unclear”. The Committee called for the Welsh Government to use its devolved levers “to potentially tip the scales of commercial viability in favour of further investment in some areas”.
What’s next for mobile?
Ofcom sets the rules for the use of “spectrum” – the different frequencies over which mobile signals are transmitted – by mobile network operators. It has recently announced new rules for the next spectrum auction which will require operators to share their infrastructure in rural areas. Whether this will be enough to help the market to close the persistent 4G coverage gap between Wales and the UK average, or whether further intervention from the Welsh and UK Governments is required, remains to be seen.
5G is the next generation of mobile technology. It is expected to deliver faster and better mobile broadband, and to enable revolutionary uses in sectors such as manufacturing, transport and healthcare. What policy interventions will be required if the rollout of 5G is not to mirror the geographic inequalities of previous generations of mobile technology?
Article by Robin Wilkinson, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales