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:

11 thoughts on “Helping make Wales more connected

  1. Your ultrafast broadband project in Swansea is an exciting initiative but for many of us in Wales connection speeds seem to fall away proportionally with distance from the the Economy Minister’s constituency. We struggle with an IP profile of .25Mbps yet I can hear the sound of the M4 through open windows.

    This is a worthy project but roll out priorities set by WG have not been fully thought through. Cynics point to the fact that amongst the first areas to be superfast enabled were the constituencies of labour/plaid coalition members when all this was signed off. The clamour to make FTTC available to as many users as possible as quickly as possible in order to draw down European funding has meant the priority went to the more densely populated areas where people are already physically located not far from their exchanges/cabinets. So users with an existing ADSL connection of 10Mbps now can choose 30MBps. In practice 10Mbps is perfectly adequate for many domestic users and SME’s so they haven’t been falling over themselves to spend the extra money. The proof is to be seen in the low uptake of Superfast where it has been implemented. The WAO report refers to the fact that Wales is the only UK region where they are not achieving the 21% uptake threshold.

    “2.51 BT stated at the Superfast Cymru Programme Board in January 2014 that it
    was concerned about the level of take-up in Wales and that ‘BT is anticipating
    claw-back in all areas except Wales’. The Welsh Government did not agree with
    BT’s assertion and both parties are now confident that take-up in Wales in the
    intervention area will exceed the claw-back threshold as rollout progresses.”

    That matters because where uptake is above 21% the 50% profit gain share agreement in place means funds go back into the public purse offsetting initial public expenditure. A better targeted rollout to areas that can afford and need improved technology might have cost less/given the taxpayer faster time to cash. I find it incredible that take up targets were not set by WG (or the other government funding partners) as a measure of success. Our canny Scots cousins didn’t make that mistake – maybe they are genetically more focussed on tangible results than simple activity and expenditure.

    And what of the rural and semi rural areas. One of the key objectives of this scheme was a ‘levelling of the
    playing field’ – bringing acceptable broadband speeds to the SMEs and homes in our heartland so that they might better compete with urban areas and revitalise their own local economies. Well the gap has simply widened. Resources have focussed upon rolling out to fibre to the cabinet but it is the ‘last mile’ of copper that makes all the difference here. On the ground the copper network is in a parlous state. I can walk from my house and find cables lying in hedges after poles were brought down in storms months age, I can find trees swinging from wires, low conductivity aluminium cabling which won’t be upgraded for budgetary reasons. When it rains the local populace know that network reliability and availability will fall away as damp ingresses. When we see signs of rectification work in progress we groan as too frequently inexperienced or unfamiliar contract technicians make mistakes that further degrade the system. When our distant cabinets are eventually fibre enabled, the local network configuration – designed for the 20th century not the 21st – means that due to increased signal attenuation over copper associated with the new technology our service level will, in all lilkeliihood, decrease. And from 5pm onwards *&%$£………imagine if the service level agreement we had with Western Power stated “to supply 240v 50Hz but at times of peak demand expect 20V and 20Hz”. The focus on providing greater bandwidth to big business and the urban areas should have been rebalanced towards getting uniform but lower levels of acceptable bandwidth to all areas faster. Our SMEs are the engine of growth in the economy and their needs have not been adequately understood. Investment should also have been directed to capital expenditure beyond the cabinet in rural areas. Funding should have been tied into both uptake and the net increase in performance for each user to counter the urban bias.

    In frustration we relocated to Bristol so now can’t wait for WG to spend £1B on the M4 link to make it easier to drive out of Wales to work every day.

  2. I’m deeply sceptical that a piece about broad band provision should be written by an employee of BT. It looks rather like a piece of not very subtle self advertisement. The village where I live is eight miles out of Swansea and includes a broad profile of occupations including small business entrepreneurs,medics, media, academics. A feasibility study would have revealed this. When BT finally brought fibre optics to the village they stopped half way in so that the rest of the village has to rely on overhead cables if they want BT. Personally, I don’t, not for broadband anyway. The WG contracted supplier, ResQ, now provides a reliable service; it’s not the fastest but at least on the now rare occasions when there is a glitch I can ring their office in Cross Hands, speak to someone who knows the area and usually get same day remedy. I am, as you will guess, no expert on IT or business economics but I suspect that somewhere along the line BT have calculated a trade-off between profit and provision.

  3. A timely piece that highlights the tremendous work being done here. Wales is so lucky to have excellent communication projects and strategies. We now have to build on these in order to place our nation at the forefront of European and global networks. Good luck with future development, and please ignore the nay sayers.

  4. We both need to work from home a few days a week but rarely get speeds above 5. We’ve asked BT how to improve this but apparently the issue is that we’re semi rural. We chose to live here because of the fantastic access 10 miles away to Newport rail and road services and our commutes to Cardiff, Bristol & London. My husband set up a business in RCT that has created 100 jobs using the latest cloud technology and yet at home, we are stuck with some of the lowest speeds in the UK. It’s a shame because we live in a beautiful area.

  5. … more premises will have access to high speed broadband than access to mains gas and sewage. Personally, I think I would prefer ‘superfast’ mains gas and ‘high speed’ sewage. What is not understood, as highlighted by Brian above, is that fibre to cabinet is not enough. What is needed is cabinet to house/business/premises.

    I don’t understand why BT is touting this roll out in Wales as some massive feat of advanced engineering (and charging accordingly). We have been laying pipe and digging holes all over ‘difficult terrain’ Wales since Victorian times and before and it is much simpler to lay a fibre network than gas or even water! As for the cabinets themselves, well this is hardly brain surgery is it?

    Another point that must be made is that most businesses do not need ‘superfast’ broadband. Email and browsing is sufficient. 2-5mB is adequate for most ‘business’ purposes so you’re never going to get high ‘take up’ especially if it costs more.(which it does). The majority of domestic users don’t need superfast to get ‘connected’ TV viewing, Netflix etc. Most users of the Internet only access a tiny handful of websites, BBC, Amazon, Tesco, eBay, youtube etc. I don’t need ‘superfast’ broadband in order to make this comment on clickonwales. My thought processes and typing skills are not that fast!

    As for citing that this is an incentive for inward investment again this is an easy sleight of hand by politicians. Corporate decisions in locating business in Wales are subject to many other more important factors such as workforce availability and skills, nearness to markets, subsidies etc. My own business would benefit much more from improved speed of ‘upload’ or at least an equalisation between upload and download speeds. I forget the acronym for this.

    This broadband rollout, hyped by politicians, duped by BT, is a huge distraction from dealing with proper issues fundamental to our society.

  6. More drivel from a BT payroll employee trying to talk-up BT’s ‘last century’ FTTC solution for broadband provision. This comes on top of their previous seriously flawed roll-out of the equally obsolete DSL technology. FTTC leaves the UK – not just Wales – a good decade behind competing developed, and some less developed, nations with the only light at the end of the tunnel being provided by genuine FTTP providers like Virgin Media and some smaller independents rolling out more local FTTP networks across the UK.

    The under-performance of BT’s DSL network, IMHO aggravated by their flaky copper/aluminium network, caused me to have to invest in the unwanted overhead of running a FTTP connection in England in order to download the kind of installation files I needed to run my business. So thanks to BT, and their brain-dead political partners, I have been paying Virgin Media for 6 whole years for cable broadband in England which any enlightened so-called national telco would have provided years ago. And believe me, it leaves BT’s FTTP network for dead! And that’s on top of paying for an ADSL line in Wales which is so flaky it often loses synchronisation with the exchange when the phone rings. £27 a month for rubbish – to put it bluntly.

  7. KT, might I assume you are not one of the estimated 90,000 rural/semi rural premises in Wales that will be left behind ?

    Just over the border BT Openreach are delivering this which encompasses a large rural area. Guaranteed minimum 2Mbps to all properties by end of 2015. FTTP already laid in Forest of Dean. How come the business case stacks up so solidly over there but not over here ? Notwithstanding this, it seems reasonable progress is also being made there so it isn’t that unusual.

    The WAO have pronounced our own progress against plan as ‘reasonable’ (in the private sector the minimum standard to keep your job ?). They have not commented on whether the plan itself is good. Can you point me to any respected independent bodies who have assessed our communications projects and strategies as being classed as excellent as you state? If so please share and also pass on to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee who it seems remain concerned.

  8. Doesn’t the project finish in the middle of 2016 and so you may well benefit from the project? Just because they haven’t got to a specific area just yet doesn’t mean they won’t get there. If you live in a more rural area it is obviously more technically difficult to roll out new fibre optics to that area and therefore will understandably take more time? Also you are completely discounting the vast amount of localities that have already been activated.

    In terms of uptake I don’t think you could really discriminate and say that the more wealthy parts of Wales should get broadband before the less wealthy just because they are more likely to be able to afford the product!

    But I do agree with your point that the point was to bring broadband to SME’s and that uptake is an issue here. I know businesses that don’t know what to do with broadband, let alone the higher speed variety. I know why, because it’s not easy to understand the variety of products and services that are out there.

    In terms of download speeds I’m fairly sure BT have to provide 30mb or they don’t get paid?

  9. To dispel the suggestions that the original article was a puff piece for BT, while their rep now answer the questions in the first two comments above?

  10. Darran

    BT Openworld had already committed significant funding to enable a FTTC project in the more densely populated areas of Wales prior to the government getting its chequebook out to help. No surprise as this makes business sense here just as it does in other countries.Our poor are predominately concentrated in urban environments that already have good ADSL speeds so they are not disadvantaged. Making superfast available to those who both need and can afford it first does make sense (see the 21% rule) – it frees up public funds for other worthy projects.

    The government funding was to offset the extra cost and difficulty of reaching out beyond the towns. Because the measure of success was poorly thought through the bias has been simply on enabling as many properties capable of being connected ASAP so they concentrated on towns where the need was actually less but results could be obtained faster.

    Yes the FTTC project completes in 2016 and yes our on the ground engineers have advised us that it won’t deliver any improvement for those of us distant from a cabinet by more than 2km.

    As for BT not getting paid – I think you will find they are confident of not being out of pocket !

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