Improving connectivity for Wales

Gary Thompson says Wales needs to invest in a digital infrastructure which is capable of terabit speeds.

Post-Brexit Wales needs to look at what investment can be made here which will allow the country to compete on a global investment stage. It needs to focus on leading global growth in key sectors.

When I was developing the vision for Swansea Bay City Region: A City Deal 2016-2035 – The Internet Coast, the first thing I did was work with regional partners to explore what the economic challenges were that the Swansea Bay City Region wanted to address through a City Deal.

The answer to this was to exploit regional assets by aggregating them, to address global challenges in areas of health and well-being, energy and global internet connectivity by exploiting an investment in a new submarine cable connecting Oxwich Bay to North America.

Two exciting investments referenced in the Swansea Bay City Region: A City Deal 2016-2035 – The Internet Coast submission to both the Welsh and UK governments are a transatlantic submarine cable connecting Oxwich Bay to North America with a capacity of 144 terabits per second (Tbps), and the Genomic Medicine Moonshot Programme.

The ARCH programme in West Wales is in advanced discussions with Californian-based NantHealth to lead developments which will transform cancer treatment and, as stated by President Obama in his State of the Union address in January, contribute towards finding a cure for cancer.

If we are to capitalise on these investments, Wales needs to develop a digital infrastructure which will provide urban and rural communities with terabit connectivity.

In the case of the Genomic Moonshoot Programme, each human genome requires one terabit of data storage. To store the human genome of every person in Wales would require three million terabits of data and this data needs to be stored and distributed across the hospitals of Wales and to connect to NantHealth in California.

As Wales will be one of only two NantHealth Genomic Medicine Centres in Europe, there is a huge economic investment opportunity to lead innovation across Europe in genomic medicine and storing and distributing human genomes for the population of Europe.

At over 700 million, Europe’s population will require more than 700 million terabits of storage. This provides South Wales with an inward investment opportunity for cloud data centres and much more.

South Wales is placed in a very strong position to exploit this opportunity due to a number of economic conditions, including its proximity to California in relation to the rest of Europe, and the new 144 Tbps transatlantic cable at Oxwich Bay.

Today Wales doesn’t have a digital infrastructure which is capable of terabit speeds, but Wales could develop digital infrastructure models similar to those developed in Bristol and Santander in Spain.

The city of Bristol has created Bristol is Open, also known as Terabit West, which is a publicly owned city-wide terabit digital infrastructure providing fixed network, wireless and 4G and 5G, which Bristol is using to re-purpose and digitise all public sector service, as a city-wide innovation test-bed and on a commercial basis, exploiting the network by developing terabit services with the private sector.

The city of Santander in Spain is doing something similar and is now Telefonica’s worldwide SMART Cities test-bed.

Wales can and should develop, like Bristol, a publicly owned national digital infrastructure for Wales which will provide terabit and gigabit connectivity to both urban and rural communities, enable the public sector to re-purpose and digitise service delivery models in areas of health and well-being and local authority services, enable innovation and the development of new growth sectors in genomic medicine and international e-trade, and provide an infrastructure which will enable global inward investment.

As well as the Genomic Moonshot Programme outlined above, there are quite a number of other economic opportunities which a national digital infrastructure for Wales would make possible. These include the creation of digitally enabled future energy systems, rural broadband and international e-trade.

The ultimate destination for the transatlantic cable which is due to land at Oxwich Bay is the City of London. South Wales can take advantage of this investment by connecting this cable to our urban communities, providing them with terabit digital infrastructure.

Cardiff is a fully fibred city, with this fibre being used to manage Cardiff’s traffic light system. By connecting Cardiff to the cable in Oxwich Bay, we can create Terabit Cardiff and also exploit Cardiff’s financial services enterprise zone by creating an international e-trade cloud data services.

In Llanelli, businesses can be offered gigabit and terabit infrastructure instead of, in some cases, half-megabit broadband.

In relation to rural communities in Wales, in most cases they suffer from no mobile coverage to very little broadband coverage. A new national digital infrastructure could provide them with 5G infrastructure and 5G services.

At a recent digital event which I attended, a GP who has a rural practice said he would like to interact with his patients digitally via Skype or through telecare and assisted living technologies. A national digital infrastructure would enable rural communities to interact in this way.

In order to deliver a national digital infrastructure for Wales, my recommendation would be to create two publicly owned companies, one for South Wales and one for North Wales, with the companies having the responsibility for owning, operating and exploiting the networks.

The network would be funded through a series of mechanisms. These could be the City Deals, Welsh Government, UK Government, EU Structural Funds (Which are still available for the next two years), Innovate and investments from the private sector. This is the same model that is operated in Bristol.

Gary Thompson is a digital and economic growth strategist. An earlier version of this article was published on Wales Online.

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