The Welsh government should urgently establish a ‘barrier busting’ taskforce focused on making Wales a more attractive place to invest in all forms of digital infrastructure, according to a new report by the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales (NICW).
In its first full set of recommendations to the Welsh government, the Commission says that too much attention has been paid to promoting fibre to the home, and not enough on improving mobile broadband provision. NICW does not think the UK government’s target of having fibre to every home by 2025 is realistic and is concerned that the particular challenges of deploying fibre in Wales - where population density is lower, demand weaker and the topography more challenging - means that Welsh households and businesses will find themselves at the back of the queue.
The report says that only 3% of all the data carried on UK networks is carried on mobile networks today, a much lower proportion than elsewhere in Europe. NICW recommends that ‘home’ mobile broadband connections could be a good, low cost option for business and homes in rural areas, on a permanent basis or until fibre to the home arrives.
NICW’s Digital Communication Infrastructure of Wales report aims to assist the Welsh government to establish a digital communications strategy to best meet the needs of Wales. In order to achieve rapid advances the proposed ‘barrier busting’ taskforce, led by a senior Welsh Government official and working with local authorities and other stakeholders, would be responsible for implementing many of the changes recommended. These include:
- Discussing ambitious targets for 4G and 5G ‘home’ mobile infrastructure with the mobile industry. This would include the offer of Welsh government funds to support mobile infrastructure under a new, more flexible, ‘Gigabit Cymru’ programme;
- Serious consideration of planning rules that are more favourable towards mobile infrastructure than those seen elsewhere in the UK;
- Not, at this stage, spending more than £3,500 to connect individual households to a fibre network and simplifying the use of vouchers for this purpose;
- Investing heavily to improve the adoption of new digital technologies where the infrastructure is already available, but only after Audit Wales has reviewed the effectiveness of the programmes that already exist.
John Lloyd Jones, commission chair, said: “Digital connectivity has been vital during the Covid-19 pandemic and will continue to be an important enabler of economic development and digital service delivery. Businesses and households stand to gain substantial economic benefits from both fibre to the home and 5G.
"The quality of digital communications is critical in determining where new, high growth businesses locate and where young people choose to live. They cannot afford to wait and will move to where fast, reliable broadband is available. Yet, too many parts of Wales still lack adequate broadband connectivity and opportunities are already being lost. Achieving rapid advances will require more direction from the Welsh government.”
NICW’s Annual Report notes that progress on the Commission’s other planned reports for 2020, on Transport and Energy, has been hampered by the understandable diversion of resources from the Commission to the Covid 19 effort. The report sets out progress to date in these areas along with plans for further work over the coming year.
The NICW was established in 2018 as a non-statutory body to advise and make recommendations to Welsh ministers on Wales’ economic and environmental infrastructure needs over the next five to thirty years.