From Full Fibre Broadband to Net Zero

Full fibre broadband has potential to support Wales' move to Net Zero.

Steve Cooper explains how real fibre broadband can help shape our sustainable future and achieve Net Zero targets.

In roughly the time between the peak of the Welsh coal industry in 1913 and the peak of global coal 100 years later, average temperatures rose by 1.1℃ across the globe. The 195 countries that signed the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement committed to halt the continuing global warming at 1.5℃. 

To slow and then stop global warming, humanity ultimately cannot afford to release any more CO2 than can be recaptured through expanded natural processes and better land management. That’s what Net Zero means. The sooner we reach Net Zero the better, and the Paris Agreement set a date no later than 2050.

We all have our part to play.

The size of Wales

For perspective, in 2018 alone, human activity added 49 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That’s a number so big –  49 000 000 000 – it’s nearly unimaginable. If Wales’ world famous Principality Stadium could be constructed from frozen blocks of carbon dioxide instead of concrete, we could build 1 million Principality Stadiums just from 2018’s carbon emissions.

So the question is: how can we get there? How to make the choices and commitments needed to reach Net Zero globally? Let’s cut this problem down to a manageable size: the size of Wales. 

In 2015 Wales became the first nation in the world to pass Wellbeing of Future Generations legislation. Our legacy from heavy industry played its part, encouraging honest self-reflection. Maybe because we’ve had plenty of goes at the same-old-same-old, with the same old results, progressive thinking comes a bit more naturally.

The Act aims to make good ancestors of us all, obliging the Welsh Government to consider the social, cultural, environmental and economic wellbeing of generations-to-come in all of its policy making. And the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner had delivered inspiration for positive action as well as practical frameworks for taking tough decisions. It has already had powerful consequences. 

For example – should we fix congestion on the M4 near Newport by building a new road? Same-old-same-old says yes. And if it means destroying a rare habitat, biodiversity, and a powerful carbon store, well that’s ‘the price you pay for progress’. But the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act provided a reason to think again, and very differently.

Powering up full fibre broadband will make new working models practical and effective.

In the foreword to ‘Net Zero Wales’  – Welsh Government’s plan to rebuild our economy around green jobs and a green future – the First Minister acknowledges the contribution of The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act to our shared ambition, purpose and responsibility. It’s giving us something of a head start.

Wales can’t fix the world’s Net Zero challenge – or even the UK’s – alone. But like all small countries, we can have our impact by adding our drum beats to the march of change.

How real fibre broadband contributes to our sustainable future

Getting to Net Zero is a matter of powering down our energy demand and powering up zero carbon energy generation and sustainable technology.

Transport contributes 17% of Wales’ direct carbon emissions (27%  for the UK as a whole). Can we agree that we should power down unnecessary commuting and business travel? We managed it during the pandemic and, if we succeed, it will reduce the contribution that travel makes to carbon emissions. The Welsh Government has set a goal for 30% of us to regularly work at or near to home.  If we really committed to this – say ‘regularly’ meant 3 days per week – then we could immediately save 11.5% of emissions from our cars, or 0.4 million tonnes of CO2 annually. But that assumes broadband delivers a streamlined, reliable working experience from our homes, community co-working hubs and coffee shops. 

Gofod i drafod, dadlau, ac ymchwilio.
Cefnogwch brif felin drafod annibynnol Cymru.


Remote working during lockdowns has highlighted just how variable that experience can be. Powering up full fibre broadband will make new working models practical and effective. And in wellbeing terms, there’s a bigger payback for Wales. The expansion of remote working will open up new opportunities for well paid jobs to everyone with the right skills, and not be restricted to a few lucky cities and regions.  And remote workers spend their money in the communities where they live. Sustainability, opportunity, community, all in one. 

If we’re working from home, our power, heat and lighting have to be decarbonised too. This isn’t only about powering up renewable energy. It’s about consuming less overall. The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth has calculated the nation’s heating needs could be powered down by about a half, for example. Smart heating controls play a major role here, coupled with heat pumps, local energy grids and of course improved insulation. Smart means connected, and, for connected, think fibre. 

Travel remains essential and will require a lot of thought and investment to fully decarbonise. There are 1.6 million cars  on Welsh roads today, mostly using combustion engines.  Powering up journeys made on zero emission public, shared and active transport should take thousands of those cars off our roads, so long as we can build better, more joined-up services. The switch to electric vehicles (EVs)  – and green hydrogen power for heavy transport – is also incredibly important. Paired with zero carbon energy, net zero terrestrial transport ought to be achievable well ahead of 2050.

Net zero transport and heating require full fibre networks almost as much as they need zero carbon energy.

Bear in mind that nearly every EV on our roads today is an internet connected vehicle, and fully autonomous EVs take that connectivity to a whole new level. They interact with people, smart road infrastructure and each other. They will form part of the ultimate transportation system: fast and convenient, multimodal, smart and fibre-enabled, with zero emissions. 

The upshot is that net zero transport and heating require full fibre networks almost as much as they need zero carbon energy. The carbon costs of building and operating those networks  – addressed below – will be dwarfed by the carbon savings they enable.

Sustainable now, and for the future

The expansion of full fibre broadband in Wales allows our economy and communities to make positive changes to embrace the opportunities, and adapt to the challenges that lie ahead. When you power up any new service, you ‘embed’ carbon costs during construction, and potentially emit carbon through its operation. Even when you are confident those carbon costs will be repaid by future savings, there is still a duty to minimise them in the here-and-now. Here’s how we do that. 

Re-use of existing ducts and telephone poles, to minimise the amount of new ground we have to break. As well as using shared infrastructure from OpenReach and others,  we have an innovative agreement with the Welsh Government to re-use their ducts along Welsh trunk roads.

Minimise: where existing ducts are full or absent, we use techniques such as microtrenching. A microtrench can be as little as 30mm wide, compared to 300mm for a traditional trench, which not only translates into less carbon emitted, but also shorter build times and less disruption.

Build it once: the physical infrastructure of ducts, fibre, cabinets and inspection chambers is almost infinitely up-cyclable using technology upgrades at the network edge, and our supporting systems. 

Power-down: as we grow the full fibre network we can shrink the old copper-based telephone and broadband network. The new technologies consume around 80% less power to operate, and emit 80% less carbon even before factoring in the use of zero carbon energy. 

Resilience: not just renewable but resilient too. Flooding during extreme weather events is increasingly in the news. Copper networks carry electrical signals and so are very vulnerable to flooding, while fibre is pretty much immune

Recycle: the millions of miles of old copper cable can be recovered and upcycled –  for instance in new energy grids, laptops, tablets and phones – for a fraction of the carbon and environmental costs of mining and smelting new copper. 

Made in Wales, for Wales, and for generation yet to come

Gigabit-capable, resilient broadband is absolutely fundamental in the transformation to a Net Zero economy that also offers more life opportunities and greater wellbeing for the people of Wales. We’re building fast, and we’re building sustainably. Ogi’s mission and social values commit us to focus first on communities which have been underserved by traditional operators.

We’re also learning and adapting. We use every new build as a chance to improve our processes. The more carbon we eliminate from each strand of our network, the smaller the ‘net’ in our personal net zero. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Steve Cooper is Chief Delivery Officer at Ogi.

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