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National Assembly for Wales Proposes Plan to Improve Broadband and Mobile

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017 (11:36 am) - Score 650
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A National Assembly Committee has published a report that makes 12 recommendations for how Wales (UK) could bring faster broadband to poorly served premises and improve Mobile (4G etc.) connectivity, such as making future subsidies for landowners conditional on them allowing mobile masts.

The existing state aid supported Superfast Cymru project with Openreach (BT) already aims to make “fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) services available to around 96% of Wales, although the proportion that can actually access “superfast” speeds of 30Mbps+ is currently around 91-92%. The current contract is due to finish at the end of 2017 and by that time around 690,000 premises are expected to have benefited.

The Welsh Government has already proposed a second roll-out project to follow the existing one, which would be “backed by a public sector budget of around£80 million. Initially it was suggested that this could begin its deployment in January 2018 (here), although a related consultation only finished in July 2017 (here) and even if the contract(s) were to be awarded by the end of 2017 as proposed then the roll-out would probably still need a few months of prep before the building could start.

On top of that there’s the complication of the central UK Government’s proposed 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO), which could have an impact upon the Welsh Government’s plan and so it’s plausible that further delays may creep into the process.

In the meantime the National Assembly for Wales (Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee) has today made some new recommendations for facilitating future upgrades. The key areas cover reform of the planning regime and making future public subsidies to landowners (e.g. farmers) conditional on them allowing mobile phone masts on their land.

Russell George AM, Committee Chair, said:

“Connectivity is no longer a “nice-to-have” in our daily lives; for many people and businesses we spoke to during our inquiry, it’s now considered an essential service – like electricity.

Wales’s landscape and population spread poses challenges in a world where market forces determine broadband and mobile phone coverage.

While the Welsh Government’s Superfast Cymru broadband scheme, delivered with BT – has connected high numbers of people, there remain pockets it has not be able to reach, and this is echoed with mobile phone coverage.

Our recommendations will help Wales to develop a digital infrastructure which is as fast and as reliable as other parts of the UK, and is fit for the future.”

The 12 Recommendations

Recommendation 1.

Communication problems have dogged what has otherwise been a successful Superfast Cymru scheme. Some lessons appear to have been learned along the way and it is vital that any future programmes take these on board from the start. BT should continue to inform potential customers that they are able to access superfast services beyond the end of its contract. The Welsh Government should consider making communication with the public a performance requirement of any future contracts.

Recommendation 2.

The Welsh Government should consider establishing a repayable grant or equity scheme to enable small operators to fill in gaps in the network. It should also explore the viability of public ownership or forming public partnerships with service providers to develop infrastructure in specific areas.

Recommendation 3.

Future schemes should build on the success of Access Broadband Cymru and Ultrafast Connectivity Voucher which respond to consumer demand. By adding a repayable grant or equity scheme to its toolbox, the Welsh Government would have three means by which to support the final few thousand premises to enjoy the benefits of fast broadband access. The Welsh Government should also tailoring this scheme to make it more accessible to Small and Medium-sized Enterprises.

Recommendation 4.

It is vital that the hardest to reach communities and individuals are now engaged in the process to ensure that potential solutions can be tailored to their needs. Connecting the final 4% is will be more expensive, and it is vital that communities buy in to the solutions being proposed.

Recommendation 5.

The Welsh Government should conduct an assessment of future needs to inform the next stages of development. Given the cost of connecting the final 4%, which have proved beyond the reach of the market, it is vital that their connectivity is suitable not just for the present, but also for the future.

Recommendation 6.

The Welsh Government should consider making future public subsidy conditional on supporting government policy to improve digital infrastructure and to ensure that it meets the needs of consumers in the future, in particular any likely convergence between broadband and mobile internet connectivity.

Recommendation 7.

The Welsh Government, considering local topography, should reform the planning regime to support investment in digital connectivity, in particular to allow the installation of masts that cover a wider geographical range. In turn, the Welsh Government should work with operators and planning authorities to ensure that plans are clearly communicated to the affected communities and that the key benefits of mobile connectivity are actively promoted.

Recommendation 8.

While the Welsh Government does not have the power to compel mobile operating companies to share their infrastructure, it should explore the feasibility of using the planning regime to encourage operators to share infrastructure to ensure a range of coverage in current not spot areas.

Recommendation 9.

The Welsh Government should work with Mobile Network Operators and Ofcom to consider whether offering non-domestic rates relief for new masts in non-commercial areas would have a significant impact on investment.

Recommendation 10.

The Welsh Government’s forthcoming Mobile Action Plan should include firm commitments to work closely with stakeholders, in particular to:
– collaborate with local Government, UK Government, regulators and the industry to develop mobile infrastructure making the most of existing infrastructure and publicly owned assets where possible;
– collaborate with stakeholders from across the industry to ensure that Mobile Network Operators share coverage in not-spot areas; and
– collaborate with local authorities and landowners to ensure that Mobile Network Operators can have access to publicly funded assets to install masts and other apparatus and to explore the benefits of mast sharing with the emergency communication system in rural not-spots.

Recommendation 11.

Ofcom needs to use all its regulatory powers to ensure that it meets its target of 100 per cent geographical coverage. At a minimum, this should be a condition of future spectrum auctions.

Recommendation 12.

The Welsh Government and planning authorities should provide a tool kit with clear business and grant application advice to communities who wish to access public funds to create their own solutions to enhance mobile connectivity in their area. Examples of good practice should also be promoted in rural areas where connectivity is problematic.

Some of the recommendations are certainly novel in their approach, although we suspect that making subsidies contingent upon land access for new mobile infrastructure won’t go down too well with private landowners.

Similarly the idea of applying a 100% geographical coverage target to future spectrum auctions might almost work for the 700MHz band (although something like 95% might be more viable, when mixed with other bands), but it wouldn’t be workable for shorter range / high frequencies (e.g. 3.4GHz) that are better suited to dense urban population coverage.

Leave a Comment
2 Responses
  1. Avatar NGA for all

    Gosh, Ofcom Wales make no reference to the 02 4G coverage obligation of 98% or 95% by nation due to be place by the end of the this year.

    No reference to BT FoD demand central to the Superfast Wales project and key commitment to PAC in September 2016.

    No reference to the reconciliation of actuals against the unit costs BT imposed or indeed BT capital contribution.

  2. Avatar Martin

    fixed line broadband fttp has to be the way. you cant run a business on mobile signal. its pie in the sky. the lobbyists are very showy in Westminster pushing their fancy phones.

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