Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Downloading (22% - 2 years left)....

With the Wales Audit Office recently giving Superfast Cymru a thumbs up,
the minister in charge provided an update to AMs on progress to date.
(Pic :

The Superfast Cymru scheme is a £425million partnership between BT and the Welsh Government which aims to provide high-speed broadband (generally defined as somewhere between 20-50 Megabits/second) to every home and business in Wales – particularly those in hard to reach areas.

Good internet connections have become an everyday necessity regardless of where you live, while for rural businesses in particular – who often endure poor mobile and internet connections - it's essential, especially as farming payments have increasingly moved to online-only management (see also : The Green, Green Glas of Home).

In general terms, the scheme focuses on upgrading, or installing new, green BT roadside cabinets with fibre optics connections to telephone exchanges. Fibre optic cables enable much faster download speeds and can carry more information as signals are sent as pulses of light. They're also less susceptible to environmental damage.

Yesterday, Deputy Minster for Skills & Technology, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West) updated the National Assembly on progress being made by the programme.

The Deputy Minister started by saying the scheme meant Wales was moving into a position where every business and home has access to superfast broadband, as outlined in the Programme for Government (clip) - the aim of the scheme being to bring high-speed broadband to areas where the market wouldn't go. With it crucial to becoming a "truly digital nation", a big push is needed to reach the last 3-4% of premises. This includes using mobile technology like 4G, and a new scheme based on this will be launched later this year.

Without intervention, it's said 480,000 premises wouldn't have access to superfast broadband. With 79% of Welsh homes and businesses having access so far, Wales is ahead of the EU average. The scheme has created 250 jobs and provided a number of apprenticeships and work experience placements, while the Wales Audit Office (WAO) have said Superfast Cymru is making "reasonable progress".

The Superfast Cymru website will be revamped to give residents more certainty on when they would be connected. Plus, the contract has been extended to June 2017, with additional public funding of of £19million, in order to target an extra ~45,000 premises (and specifically 2,500 businesses). Swansea is also being used by BT as a testbed for 500Mbits/second ultra-fast broadband (G. fast).

There was a need to ensure people take up superfast broadband. So far, 22% of customers have taken it up within a year of it being available - the highest take-up rate in the UK. The target is for 50% take-up by 2024. Claw back agreements mean that once the scheme breaks even, the Welsh Government get some extra money back.

Shadow Economy Minister, William Graham (Con, South Wales East), said significant problems remain – mentioning issues on Deeside enterprise zone specifically (clip) - though the project demonstrates effective public-private cooperation. He hoped there was no complacency as Wales is likely to be ahead of other countries for only a short period of time, with a number of "not spots" remaining, including in around Cardiff, citing an example of a business leasing a line for broadband at a cost of £20,000.

The Deputy Minister said Wales was second only to Cornwall in take-up though roll-out has been faster than the rest of the UK. She acknowledged difficulties, suggesting alternative technologies could address problems on Deeside. Superfast Cymru only covers areas which are commercially unviable, and it won't be until the end of the programme that those involved will be able to see if something can be done for "not spots" in commercially viable areas like Cardiff.

Plaid Cymru economy spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid, Ynys Môn), said it was right to aim for universal roll-out to ease the transition into a digital economy (clip). He suggests his constituents would be surprised by the WAO's positive assessment as they, and other rural areas, wait for upgrades. He asked : Could 4G services be brought into Superfast Cymru instead of relying on mobile companies? Whether the extension to 2017 includes the whole scheme or just the 45,000 additional premises? We should aim for greater take-up than 50%, but is there a danger Wales could lag behind once faster broadband speed benchmarks are set?

The Deputy Minister said the additional premises wouldn't disrupt other parts of the programme. 4G is being looked at, as well as other technologies, to produce superfast speeds. She accepted the point on take-up, but Wales was doing well compared to other countries.

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) stressed the importance of delivering broadband to businesses, with particular concerns over business parks in his area (clip), especially those which are surrounded by residential areas eligible for Superfast Cymru but are themselves being left out. He asked what speeds people can expect and whether the new infrastructure can deliver 500Mbit/s in the future? Also, which ISPs provide superfast broadband to ensure businesses have a choice?

The Deputy Minister explained the business park situation by saying that because EU funds are being used, a "market failure" has to be proven to justify state intervention, so that's why business parks are last in the queue not first. On speeds, there's a floor of 28Mbit/s but businesses can pay extra for faster speeds. Superfast Cymru is being delivered as wholesale with individual ISPs providing services (in the same way as energy companies).

It's not just rural areas suffering from poor broadband speeds. Some parts of Cardiff just a
stone's throw from the Assembly are "not spots" but are ineligible for Superfast Cymru.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) said the programme was a lot like "trying to hit a moving target" as things change quickly and it needs to be future-proofed (clip). Eluned suggested that mobile technology might not be suitable due to poor mobile coverage in parts of Wales, as well as planning issues surrounding mobile phone masts. She added that parts of Cardiff, including her own regional office in Roath, have connection issues meaning her staff are "devastated" that they can't watch her on Senedd TV. One other issue raised was the fact many new-build estates aren't covered by Superfast Cymru because despite the lines being installed, BT's broadband department haven't been told and don't realise the new homes exist.

Julie said future-proofing was one of the reasons for the claw back agreement so BT and the Welsh Government can keep re-investing. Following meetings with mobile operators, she expects widespread 4G coverage "within the next couple of years", though planning issues are very complicated and need discussions with the UK Government. She finished by saying that BT aren't the only company rolling out infrastructure improvements as there are other commercial operators – like Virgin Media - doing so too.

Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) asked two questions (clip) : why information on specific premises falling outside the scope of Superfast Cymru wasn't available? And what the budget was to market superfast broadband? Julie explained that information was based on postcodes, not individual addresses, and £1.5million was available for marketing.

Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) said "no other issue causes as much frustration in Ceredigion" than poor broadband (clip). She was pleased the website was being updated, but wanted to know if premises in her constituency would be updated by 2016, or whether they would be part of the additional 45,000 premises set to be upgraded by 2017?

The Deputy Minister said 41.35% of premises have been completed in Ceredigion, so BT weren't even halfway yet. The website would be updated to include accurate information based on distance from cabinets.

As a former Deputy Minister for Skills & Technology, Jeff Cuthbert AM (Lab, Caerphilly) said he was familiar with the problems (clip), such as trying to locate cabinets in urban areas. He asked for confirmation that "disadvantaged communities aren't overlooked" by the scheme?

Julie said a successor to the Communities 2.0 programme is up and running, and the Welsh Government were working to ensure no communities are left out.

Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), wanted to ensure the information (clip) on the website is "useful" as she's struggled to get answers on from BT on behalf of constituents, but in particular Dan yr Ogof Showcaves, who developed an app on the presumption that broadband would be available this year, but will be delayed until 2016. She also said cabinet upgrades had led to poorer internet speeds in some areas.

The Deputy Minister pledged to look into problems as a worse performance was certainly not intended. She agreed on the need for useful information, and as the scheme progresses it's becoming easier to provide information based on distance from a cabinet. Julie added that BT sometimes had to deal with situations beyond their control and can't always give accurate timescales for broadband upgrades. However, she's asked BT to be more specific when telling the public about difficulties they're having (i.e planning delays).

Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) asked what steps were being taken to consult with the community, citing an example where residents in Dolwyddelan (clip) were quoted £2,000 by BT to move a new cabinet to another location as it was close to community planters and chapel gates. The Deputy Minister said she couldn't comment on individual cases.

Finally, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) asked (clip) about superfast broadband for rural schools and whether rural schools are a priority, to which the Deputy Minister said primary schools aren't part of Superfast Cymru but a separate programme.

Will widespread instrastructure upgrades lead to better offers for consumers?
(Pic :
Superfast Cymru isn't without critics – in particular the Pirate Party (Pirate Party : Hoising the Jolly Roger above Wales), who've criticised the technology and high prices of superfast services.

Broadly-speaking I'd say it's a good idea, though I'd share concerns over whether this will be outdated 10-15 years down the line when, presumably, becomes the norm. The clawback agreement is, therefore, a sensible part of the scheme.

The issue is take-up. 22% doesn't sound that impressive on the face of it (though I was actually surprised it's that high). Households and businesses have to actually sign up to the superfast (often advertised as "fibre") services which come at a premium, sometimes being three times more expensive than cable broadband, the latter of which might come free with a subscription media package.

Hopefully once the infrastructure is in place the ISP subscription costs will come down, and I'm going to presume cost and usage limits are currently the biggest barrier to take-up.


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