More than 50,000 rural Welsh homes and businesses could be eligible to have their broadband upgraded, thanks to a new collaboration between the UK and Welsh governments as part of the ongoing process to upgrade the national broadband infrastructure.
With immediate effect, residents and businesses will have access to more funding for better broadband, as the Welsh government “tops up” the UK government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme designed to help people cover the upfront costs of installing new gigabit-capable internet connections.
The Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme is a UK-wide, supplier-led scheme offering vouchers to be used as part of group projects, to pay towards the cost of installing gigabit-capable broadband to premises providing speeds of up to 1Gbps.
The UK government is committed to delivering nationwide gigabit-capable broadband as soon as possible, with the ambition to deliver it by 2025. It says such next-generation connectivity has the potential to revolutionise communities and make them more attractive places to live, giving people the freedom to live and work more flexibly and help develop thriving digital economies.
In the Queen’s Speech on 19 December 2019, prime minister Boris Johnson’s then newly elected government indicated it would introduce laws to accelerate the delivery of gigabit-capable broadband across the UK by 2025, a legislative journey that began in January 2020. The 2020 Budget statement confirmed the UK government’s commitment to invest a total of £5bn to roll out full-fibre broadband across the country.
But rolling it out to all places across the country has been challenging, and a programme to accelerate the extension of the fibre infrastructure to so-called hard-to-reach locations, such as rural and non-metropolitan Wales, was initiated by in January 2020 by UK national infrastructure provider Openreach.
But the UK government has now conceded that due to Wales’ topography, it has proved more expensive for industry to roll out the infrastructure to some of the harder-to-reach areas of the country. For that reason, the Welsh government is now working with the UK government to provide extra funding, and vouchers worth up to £3,500 for rural small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and up to £1,500 for rural residential premises have been available in Wales since May 2019.
The new scheme for Wales will now double the maximum funding available through each voucher and is now worth £7,000 for SMEs and £3,000 for residential premises.
The vouchers can be used to subsidise the cost of building out next-generation broadband infrastructure, such as fibre-optic cables, to rural villages and towns. The UK government also believes the vouchers will incentivise other broadband companies to build in these locations.
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Crossing the political divide, ministers from both governments are now urging Welsh businesses and communities to apply for the vouchers so they can future-proof their internet connections and be ready to reap the economic and social benefits brought by new advances in technology.
The Welsh government also provided top-up funding for the first phase of the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme that was designed to encourage broadband service providers to build full-fibre networks in the UK for SMEs and nearby residents when part of a group scheme.
Lee Waters, Wales’ deputy minister for economy and transport, said fast, reliable internet was vital for communities, as the Covid-19 outbreak has highlighted. “Following our Superfast Cymru programme 95% of premises in Wales can access faster broadband, and we need to look at innovative ways to reach the final 5%,” he said.
“We are pleased to provide this top-up for the UK government’s scheme, which takes into account the challenges of reaching some premises in rural areas. I would urge communities and businesses to explore the options these vouchers will offer, so they can access some of the fastest speeds available.”
The £67m top-up fund has now closed for new applications. Any premises in Wales that were issued vouchers with the top-up allowance before the close-down date of 14 May 2020 will still receive their funding.