When Openreach committed £12 billion of its own money to bring full-fibre broadband to Wales and the rest of the UK, government and business leaders alike applauded the arrival of the fastest and most reliable broadband speeds in Europe.
Now more than ever, every business, community and household in Wales needs to be connected in a more reliable and future-proofed way; and with Fibre First delivering broadband speeds 15 times faster than today’s UK average, Business News Wales caught up with Kim Mears OBE – Managing Director for Strategic Infrastructure Development and Chair of the Openreach Cymru Wales Board – to talk about her own journey in helping this pioneering pan-Wales infrastructure make a huge difference to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.
“Some people said it couldn’t be done, but we went from 44% to 95% superfast connectivity in just five years”
“In many ways the journey for me started in 2013, when only 44% of Wales had superfast connectivity. Everyone knows that Wales is a beautiful country, but the terrain does bring a fair share of challenges – it’s classed as ‘an Area 3’, with 66% categorised as ‘rural’ or ‘very rural’ – and so perhaps it’s no surprise that more than a few industry experts said that our ambition for Wales couldn’t be achieved. But by 2018, with the support of the Welsh government, our team had made sure that 95% of Wales enjoyed 21st century connectivity. How did we do it? Quite simply, by believing and investing in our people. The thing that never fails to amaze me about Openreach is the incredible sense of purpose shared by everyone here. We’re ultimately all about our people. They’re part of the Welsh fabric – with employees living in every community across Wales – and that identity and pride in connecting up Wales has really come to the fore.
“We’re acknowledged as the only ‘Balanced Builder’ in Wales and the UK”
“We’re playing a big part in Building Back Better – being acknowledged as the only ‘Balanced Builder’ in Wales, because of our ongoing commitment to connecting every community and not just the fibre cities of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. We take our role in people’s lives across Wales very seriously and we’re continually working with the Welsh Government to help create inclusive growth. That includes generating local jobs in our Welsh supply chains to help make them more resilient – we buy our cable in Rhyl, our ladders in Swansea, our blue rope in Wrexham and our wooden poles in Newport – and we’re constantly looking to improve sustainability, such as exploring how we can move our whole fleet over to EV-battery power. All of this vision and hard work will pay dividends for Wales, with the latest data telling us that by 2033, the connectivity we’re delivering will increase Welsh GVA by £2.1 billion, as well as empowering 27,000 people to directly return to work; and contributing to a 1.6% increase in overall employment by enabling new ways of working.
“We’re a catalyst for new ways of working”
“We’re not just a catalyst for delivering those new ways of working – we practice what we preach too. We’ve re-engineered our training solutions, with our £1.5 million state-of-the-art National Training Centre for Wales complex in Newport coming complete with a fully simulated “street” and “customer home”, which allows us to train our people without any unnecessary disruption to customers or the wider environment. Providing that kind of industry- best training is critical to our success – we’re the largest private sector apprenticeship provider in the UK and proud to be sponsoring Apprenticeship Awards Cymru again – because for us, delivering the future is all about going further and faster than we are today.
“Our Cymru Wales Board is exploring everything that can be done to help with Levelling-up”
“We’re also very conscious of our ‘Welsh identity’ and set up the Openreach Cymru Wales Board to recognise that this country comes with a unique topography, very diverse geography and specific connectivity needs. This Board has worked around any organisational silos and brought together the whole Openreach team in Wales, to explore what we can do above and beyond our current activity as part of the wider ‘Levelling-up’ debate. We’re always looking where there are any “gaps” and where we can refocus our funding and activity, through major initiatives such as Community Fibre Partnerships – where we work with individual communities, Westminster and the Welsh Government to identify new ways of funding and invest it where it’s needed most.
“I’m so proud of the team. They’re key workers helping build emergency hospitals and vaccination centres – and keep Wales connected.”
“What am I most proud of? Everyone in our team. They’re key workers and they’ve really come through for our customers and communities during COVID, working 24/7 to make sure that the whole of Wales has been connected, whatever the weather and whatever the lockdown circumstances. It’s meant helping emergency hospitals, such as Principality Stadium and Parc y Scarlets, to be built from scratch in a matter of days; supporting the vaccination roll-out in an agile and expert way; and continually asking the government “what else can we do to help”. Their exceptional performance was recognised when I was awarded my OBE in 2019. It’s a recognition of the great work done by everyone at Openreach – a testimony to the dedication and professionalism shown by every member of our 2,700+ team here in Wales.”