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Wales Considers Spending More on Mobile than Fixed Broadband

Wednesday, November 27th, 2019 (2:47 pm) - Score 1,593

The National Infrastructure Commission for Wales (NICW) has issued a call for evidence on its priorities for 2020 as it develops a future infrastructure plan for Wales, which among other things includes a proposal to spend a “greater proportion of public funds” on mobile (4G / 5G) rather than to fixed broadband ISP networks.

The commission said that its “provisional view” is that 4G and 5G based mobile broadband services “may be the lowest cost technology to provide superfast connections to some Welsh households and that a greater proportion of public funds should be allocated to mobile rather than to fixed broadband.”

We suspect that some of this debate flows from the difficulty that the Welsh Government has had in extending “full fibre” (FTTP) broadband deeper into rural parts of the country, particularly given that their recent contract agreement with BT (Openreach) seems set to deliver to significantly fewer premises than originally hoped (see here, here and here).

Quite how they plan to balance this with the UK Government’s wider plan to invest £5bn (here) into making “gigabit-capable” broadband available to every home by the end of 2025 (5G, FTTP and cable networks are all in the frame for delivering this), as well as the £1bn industry-led deal – Shared Rural Network (SRN) – to extend geographic 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025 (here), is as yet unclear.

Not to mention the 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO), which may well help to achieve some of what the NICW appears to be proposing.

Digital Communications

Issue 1:

Our provisional view is that, while a significant number of premises in Wales still don’t have access to superfast broadband, the primary focus for public funds should be on extending superfast broadband to as many households as possible using the lowest cost technology and that the public funds that would be required to extend fibre to every home in Wales by 2033 should be assessed against other possible uses.

We seek evidence on whether the UK Government’s focus on extending more expensive fibre to the home, gigabit technology to every household in the UK will best serve the interests of Welsh citizens, including those who still lack access to superfast broadband.

Issue 2:

Our provisional view is that: 4G and 5G mobile broadband may be the lowest cost technology to provide superfast connections to some Welsh households; that mobile connectivity delivers significant additional economic and social benefits in rural communities; and that, therefore, a greater proportion of public funds should be allocated to mobile as opposed to fixed broadband infrastructure or other infrastructure objectives.

We seek evidence on whether and what additional measures the Welsh Government or local authorities could take (independently of Ofcom, the operators themselves, or the UK Government) to significantly improve mobile broadband coverage, including 5G, in Wales. What should our objectives for mobile coverage be?

The proposed focus on the “lowest cost technology” would appear to conflict with the otherwise broadly “full fibre” centric focus being seen elsewhere across the United Kingdom and could even be viewed as a step backwards. On the other hand if this helps to get “superfast broadband” (usually 30Mbps+) to disadvantaged areas sooner then some will welcome it.

Julie James, Welsh Minister for Housing and Local Government, said:

“I thank the NICW for its initial analysis of Wales’ future infrastructure needs, and welcome its clear priorities for further investigation.

Developing infrastructure that contributes to growing our economy in a sustainable and responsible way is vital. Having declared a Climate Emergency earlier this year, we need to ensure our new infrastructure is fit for the long term – so that means considering low carbon options. So I am pleased the Commission has set decarbonisation, connectivity and resilience as themes that will permeate its work.

I look forward to receiving its firm recommendations in due course, to which the Welsh Government will formally respond.”

The closing date for submission of evidence is 27th March 2020 (more details here and here) and so we probably won’t get the government’s response until around mid-2020.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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9 Responses
  1. Avatar dee.jay

    So, I guess this is because it is simply easier to deploy 5G than FTTP everywhere in the deepest rural parts of Wales, where they’d only need to cable up the masts as opposed to the properties.

    • Avatar Ivor

      But if you’re going to use 5G to deliver any sort of attempt at a fibre-equivalent service then you’re going to have to go to a lot of effort and expense anyway.

      If you want cheap box-ticking USO fulfillment then upgrading existing masts and using lower band spectrum might work, but it’s not really the way to build futureproof infrastructure. You probably won’t even need to bother with 5G for this, as the capacity gains only really come with the use of new bands with their own deployment challenges.

    • Avatar Gary

      The range for 5G is the issue here surely ? The more dispersed the properties are the more masts you need, you’ll end up installing masts that serve a couple of properties. They’ll all need power and maintaining.

  2. Avatar Laurence "GreenReaper" Parry

    Well, if we’re talking carbon – I’d have thought there might be some in the steel used to make those towers.

    As for fibre, it depends. If the fibre is glass, they may not need carbon at all – it’s mostly silica. But some fibres are made of perspex, which contains five carbon atoms per molecule. Newer and longer ones are less likely to have carbon in them. I guess the real cost is putting it in the ground, though.

  3. Avatar Mike

    I guess a fixed line connection isn’t very helpful when your chasing sheep.

  4. Avatar AJS

    I’ve recently given up fibre broadband and landline contract in favour of an unlimited data Homefi 4G router with a sim slot and built in landline socket solution. I’m lucky to have a good signal and have found it a considerably cheaper alternative.

  5. Avatar Jonathan

    One suspects that topographical challanges will push up the cost of 4G/5G is a hilly/mountainous area which is basically what rural wales is. Then given the fact it would not be future proof one has to question the strategy. I feel it needs to be driven home to politicians that fibre is end game forever (unless you believe in superluminal communication in which case you are into quack science as this is explicitly precluded by relativity). Sure you would need to upgrade the optics either end of the fibre but it *NEVER* needs replacing and thats 99% of the cost.

    • Avatar Richie Brian

      Install full fibre once, never touch it again (until contractors accidentally dig it up, of course). I’ve spoken to engineers upgrading exchange equipment so that the existing fibre cable to a smaller exchange went from 1Gb to 10Gb – the exact same fibre, just different equipment. That fibre carries hundreds of ADSL connections. Yes, it’s expensive, but it only has to be done once.

      Mobile connections are OK so long as not too many people use them – contention is a real issue. I used 8Mb tethering to my phone for years until Openreach upgraded the 2mb ADSL to 76Mb FTTC – and 3 mobile cancelled the £15 unlimited everything One Plan.

  6. Avatar NGA for all

    Nothing in the pDF to outline what is outstanding from the existing projects, monies owed, clawback or the plan to apply it.

    The ‘true ups’ promised by the contractual process have yet to be published. There is a great of money outstanding, so it would be good for this to be set out before these Commissions start rhapsodising on a solution.

    BT has made specific commitments to Welsh PAC on the availability of a FOD for all, not the current strangled and constrained version.

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