Helping make Wales more connected

Edward Hunt says ‘superfast’ broadband will enable Wales to undergo a digital revolution.

A digital revolution is taking place in this country which is helping shape a better Wales.

Over the next few years the Superfast Cymru project – jointly funded to the tune of £425m by the Welsh Government, UK Government, European Union and BT– will make Wales one of the most digitally connected nations on Earth

Delivering on this considerable commitment presents many engineering challenges for our network provider – Openreach. It requires the use of a range of technologies to reach otherwise inaccessible areas in order to overcome the challenges of Wales’ unique geography to ensure communities become integrated with the wider Welsh fibre network. This digital revolution is helping to open up Wales to the world.

Superfast broadband has already been cited by North American companies such as CGI, Appnovation, TDS, and Alert Logic as one of the reasons why they have chosen to invest and expand in Wales. But this is only the start. An accessible and integrated high-speed fibre network will allow Wales to build smart cities and communities with updated infrastructure networks that can record and respond to the public’s needs in real time. They can make public services more efficient, more cohesive, but also more flexible to individual needs.

Already, fibre broadband coverage in Wales is better than France, Italy and Spain. Furthermore, Wales is probably now ahead of German coverage levels. Welsh Government’s ambition is for 96% coverage which is truly world class – on a par with the likes of Japan and South Korea. Superfast Cymru is the primary way those kinds of coverage levels will be achieved.

The speeds obtained by the majority of those that will access superfast broadband thanks to Superfast Cymru will be a minimum of 30mbps – a huge uplift in connectivity for those that are currently having to make do with much slower internet speeds.

This is largely being achieved through a Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) method that involves those green boxes you might see on the side of your road.

A purist might suggest that Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) is the best way to roll out a broadband network. FTTP delivers high speeds for sure – some parts of the Wales can already potentially access speeds of up to 330mbps thanks to this technology. It can however, unless used in the most appropriate conditions, be an expensive way of using public money to deploy fibre.

Estimates of over £20 billion have been quoted by some organisations to cover the UK with FTTP. Some countries have tried to make nationwide FTTP deployments work with poor outcomes and costly over-runs. BT is being consulted by Telcos from around the world about how it has achieved its successful rollouts around the UK. A recent visit to Wales by five US mayors saw them staggered by the quality of service and low cost that end users pay here in Wales.

BT is a broadband pioneer and has a proud tradition of continually innovating as demonstrated last month when it announced a major trial in Swansea which will see businesses and occupants of flats benefitting from speeds of up to 500mbps. This is state of the art technology being trialled right here in Wales.

Superfast Cymru involves a major investment of public money. These sorts of projects usually under-deliver and cost more than expected don’t they? Well no. The Welsh Audit Office recently published a report after looking into the project at around the half way stage. They said that it is making “reasonable progress”, is “exceeding the March 2015 contractual target”, “includes appropriate controls to manage costs and delivery and that the contractual costs are within range of other UK public sector next generation broadband contracts”. In the understated world of audit this is praise indeed.

Many leading figures in Wales have previously mentioned the importance of broadband on this site and highlighted the complexities of providing digital opportunities to Welsh communities.

Our Secretary of State, Stephen Crabb MP highlighted the importance of infrastructure investments and the need for homes and businesses to have access to broadband. Our First Minister, Carwyn Jones AM has referred to the digital revolution in Wales and how high speed broadband will support business in Wales.

But access has always been the question which is raised the most – “when will I get it”, is the commonest cry.

In fact the majority of homes in Wales have access today, so now is the time to ensure the network is exploited – children use it to supplement their learning, public services are delivered over it, businesses grow through its use.

There are already many examples of Welsh businesses using this exciting technology to boost their competitiveness, work more effectively and efficiently and find new markets, but there are still too many firms who are missing out because they have not yet joined the fibre broadband revolution.

It should be remembered that premises aren’t automatically connected to Superfast broadband once a community becomes ‘enabled’. Individuals will then need to contact their internet service provider to upgrade.

During my conversations with business I’d say the understanding around commercially exploiting superfast broadband can, on occasions, be low. Talk about cloud computing and you might see eyes glaze over. Business owners need to be good at catering, farming, manufacturing etc, some don’t necessarily always want to be IT experts as well. Welsh Government are developing an ambitious programme to support Welsh businesses exploit superfast broadband with workshops, one on one support, information, you name it.

The deployment of the Superfast Cymru network continues. More premises are benefitting every day across Wales. The scale of the project is immense – with this exciting technology becoming available to thousands of Welsh households and businesses every week – and by the time it is finished, more premises will have access to high speed broadband than access to mains gas and sewage.

Edward Hunt is Programme Director for Superfast Cymru, BT Group. For more information on Superfast Cymru, see:

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