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One of the UK government’s perceived successes has been its programme to roll out gigabit and superfast broadband across all of the nation, including hard-to-reach areas. But a report from the Welsh government has highlighted a general lack of access to high-end connectivity, in particular “excluding people from modern life” due to barriers in receiving high-quality, superfast internet.
The report, from the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee of the Senedd Cymru, warned that people in Wales are being left behind with “sub-par, unreliable broadband”.
In March 2022, the UK government announced that more than 600 hospitals, police stations, libraries and other public buildings in Wales had been connected to full-fibre broadband. It said the move was not just part of its levelling-up strategy for public services, but also marked the completion of the largest public sector broadband project in Wales, potentially making a tangible difference to the lives of families, people and communities.
But the Welsh parliamentary committee’s report found that, despite improvements over the last few years, many people are still unable to access adequate internet speeds. Even though superfast broadband availability in Wales is now at 96%, figures from Ofcom show that take-up in the country is only around 63%.
It also discovered that the provision of superfast broadband across Wales was uneven, with urban areas being the first to benefit from better connectivity, but many rural areas still unable to access a decent internet connection. It noted Ofcom’s estimate that about 15,000 premises cannot get a broadband service of at least 10Mbps download speed and 1Mbps upload speed from fixed or fixed wireless networks in Wales, thus raising fears of a continued digital divide for broadband in the UK.
The report noted that the UK government’s £5bn Project Gigabit was designed to address this issue across the UK with the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme created to support rural areas with the installation costs of high-speed broadband. Yet it added that because of Wales’s mountainous topography, there is a higher proportion of difficult-to-reach properties in the country compared with other parts of the UK.
Also, from 31 March 2022, the Welsh government stopped topping up the gigabit voucher scheme, which led the committee to call for the UK government to raise the amount of support available for individuals and businesses to address particular needs in Wales.The report warned that without meaningful engagement between the two governments, there is nothing to prevent the UK administration creating a scheme that again does not meet the needs of Wales.
The report also highlighted the fact that since March 2020, households that cannot get a download speed of 10Mbps and an upload speed of 1Mbps can request an upgraded connection from BT under the universal service obligation (USO). This obliges BT to improve the connection for free if the installation cost is estimated to be below £3,400 for the customer. But if the cost exceeds the £3,400 cap, the customer must pay the excess.
The committee expressed serious concern that this would simply be unaffordable to many people – particularly in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis – and urged the Welsh government to discuss raising the level of the cap with the UK government. The report also quoted Ofcom data that showed there were about 7,000 hard-to-reach locations where, even with the USO, access to a stable broadband connection would not be guaranteed.
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The committee also heard that one of the many reasons for people’s lack of take-up of superfast broadband was cost. Even though it recognised that many internet providers offer “social tariff” packages that are only available to people receiving government benefits, which allows them to access cheaper internet deals, the report highlighted the worrying fact that only 1.2% of those eligible for a social tariff had accessed the scheme, potentially leaving thousands of low-income households paying over the odds for their broadband.
Lee Waters, deputy minister for climate change, said in evidence to the committee: “UK funding has failed to reflect the true cost of deploying in the Welsh landscape.” To address this issue, and despite it being a non-devolved area, the Welsh government provided top-up funding to the UK government scheme to “plug the gap” in Wales, he said.
Going forward, the committee proposed that action should be taken to increase the number of households enrolling on social tariffs by making the process clearer and simpler. Lack of awareness of social tariffs was noted as a significant issue, with the committee proposing that their promotion must be improved and consideration should even be given to the automatic enrolment of those eligible.
In the light of the severe cost-of-living crisis, the report warned there is a risk that superfast broadband access will become a luxury that many will not be able to afford.
The report’s findings were described by Michael Armitage, founder of broadband provider Broadway Broadband, as a stark warning that it was time to ramp up on tackling the digital disadvantage affecting people in rural Wales. “It’s encouraging to see the Welsh parliament raising the issue of sub-par broadband affecting people across rural areas,” he said. “Data released from Ofcom this month found that across Wales, 10,626 homes were below the minimum standard for broadband speed.
“Given the ambitious targets for rural connectivity laid out in the Levelling Up agenda, the main priority should now be to continue providing the population in rural Wales with high-quality, full-fibre broadband that is both as reliable and affordable as the packages available in urban areas.”