By Nick Speed – Director – BT Group Wales
While the pandemic will one day end, it’s clear that many aspects of how we live our lives could change for good.
It has resulted in more of our time being spent online. From meetings via Microsoft Teams, to more video calls with friends and family on Zoom.
Having a reliable and fast broadband connection has become more important than ever, and the need to get more people connected to ultrafast full fibre broadband has been rising up the political agenda.
With Senedd elections due to take place next year, we are seeing organisations in all sectors listing digital connectivity as one of their priorities for the next term. Business groups recognise that access to fast broadband is essential for the post-Covid economic recovery, while representatives of the most vulnerable groups want to make sure no-one is left behind as public services move online. All the political parties in Wales are grappling with how they’d meet this demand.
By the end of the next Senedd term (2021-2026), if the right measures are put in place across governments, there’s a potential, in a best case scenario, for us to reach more than 90% of homes and businesses in Wales being able to connect to full fibre broadband. That’s up from the current 15% of properties.
While the UK's broadband networks have generally coped well with the big surge in traffic during the pandemic – with broadband data usage growing by around 50% compared to last year – it has highlighted the need to accelerate the roll-out of ultrafast full-fibre broadband to all parts of the country.
There are various targets and suggested dates for us to hit full fibre connectivity. The UK Government did have an ambitious target to roll out gigabit-speed broadband to every property in Britain by 2025. This has now been rolled back to ‘a minimum of 85%’ by 2025 in Chancellor Rishi Sunak's spending review. But targets aside, a number of things need to change if real progress is to be made in this area.
While broadband companies are now investing billions on this roll out, independent research suggests that these targets will only be achieved if the UK Government, devolved governments and local authorities take action to remove a number of barriers.
Around 15% of homes and businesses in Wales are able currently to connect to full fibre broadband. Under current conditions, modelling carried out in the summer shows that this would increase to around two thirds (61%) by 2025. However, the same modelling shows that 92% of Wales could be connected by 2025, were all these barriers removed – and the date for reaching 100% full fibre could be brought forward from 2033 to 2027, or just after the next Senedd term.
We have seen the Welsh Government step in to fund connectivity in areas where the market is not delivering this – but the research shows that a better policy, fiscal and regulatory landscape could reduce the need for this spend from the public purse.
So what are the barriers that risk holding back the rollout of full fibre broadband across Wales?
Firstly, the rules allowing fibre builders to use gas, electricity and water infrastructure to lay fibre need to be revised. There should be fair and equal access to this infrastructure – which is already in the ground – so fibre builders don’t have to keep digging up the road and people’s fields when they don’t have to.
The rules for getting planning consent and agreements to access land also need to be changed.
In terms of laying fibre, all local authorities should allow the use of the latest digging technology that means that fibre can be laid quickly and efficiently. Too often, local planning terms for street digging are outdated and overly complicated.
Fibre builders should also be incentivised, not penalised, for investing in fibre. Currently, builders have to pay higher business rates on a fibre connection than they do on an older, much slower, copper one. That needs to change in Wales and across the UK.
The roll-out will also require thousands of new and trained staff. Fibre builders will need a subsidy scheme to help recruit and train the necessary staff in this short timeframe.
Fibre builders should be supported to get access to blocks of flats, and it should also be made compulsory for full fibre to be pre-installed in all newly built houses.
Progress is already being made in terms of legislation relating to blocks of flats and new-build houses, but the other barriers need to be addressed quickly.
With the right support from UK Government, Welsh Government and local authorities, far more of Wales could benefit.
There are clear economic benefits to building full fibre, particularly in more rural areas. It’s estimated that connecting everyone in Wales to full fibre by 2025 would create nearly a £2 billion boost to the Welsh economy.
While connecting the whole of Wales to full fibre by the end of the next Senedd term is ambitious, making some of these policy changes could make that a reality, with all the benefits that would bring for a truly digital Wales.