Wales continues to confuse over its Superfast Cymru project aims

It should be no shock that Wales is set to see a new scheme to extend superfast coverage further after the initial SuperfastCymru contract with BT, and the transcripts from the Welsh Plenary on 24th January has Julie James AM confirming that an announcement on the expected GBP80 million project is expected next week. We believe the GBP80 million figure includes GBP37m of gainshare from the first project which is interesting, as the gainshare money is not actually physically returned to councils until the final end date which is usually 7 years from the start of the contract for BDUK contracts. It is possible that the Welsh contract is different and there is talk of the contract ending on 31st December 2017 hence the cliff edge effect that has upset those who missed out in the rush to deliver lots more FTTP in December 2017.

It should be pointed out there was earlier soft end dates, but with the higher ambition for more full fibre this may have pushed construction work right up until the last second. The result of the end of contract is that the Welsh Government is clear, any work done now is not going to get gap funding under the old contract, thus the choice of BT and Openreach is complete work at their own cost or just leave for a later contract to deal with. In many English local authorities this cliff was avoided and smaller gainshare contracts have been signed to extend work before the end of the primary contract.

As we track the various statistics the lack of precision in what the Assembly Members were discussing is very frustrating and talk of 4% of people missing out at the end of contract leads to BBC articles where they state ‘In 2013, BT Openreach was hired to extend the reach of superfast broadband (30Mbps or more) to 96% of premises in Wales under a contract with funding from Europe and the Welsh and UK governments’, so therefore it should be no surprise that the public is extremely annoyed when they find out they’ve been notionally covered by the project but still cannot get superfast speeds.

85. I think the Member has made a number of points that are well worth considering. As I said, in considering what we’re going to do for the successor schemes, we are of course very mindful of the people who have had promises made to them in various circumstances and , for various complex engineering reasons and so on, haven’t been able to be met under the first scheme.

86. Angela Burns will be the first person to say that I shouldn’t be paying for something that is outwith the contract, and of course there has been an end to the contract, and we’ve been very certain about that end, because, of course, we have to behave in an appropriate financial way with regard to the contract and so on. But our primary intention here is to connect people to broadband–this isn’t a financial exercise, it’s an exercise in getting the infrastructure out there.

So, we’ve had a number of conversations with Openreach BT about where the infrastructure build has gone to, and bear in mind, they are investing their money in that–they are not paid until those premises are connected. So, they have invested money in building out to those premises and it’s in their commercial interest to make sure that people are connected as much as anything else. We’ve had some considerable conversations with them about people in the position that you mentioned, for a number of your constituents, and indeed people across Wales who are in the 4 per cent of people who are at the end of the contract.

I will be making some announcements next week, which I think may bring some comfort to some of the communities that you mentioned.

The reality of the Welsh SuperfastCymru contract as we understand it is that BT Openreach had a target of delivering superfast services to 690,000 premises which looks like this has been achieved and maybe exceeded slightly, but the 96% most often quoted is 96% of premises in Wales with access to a high speed broadband connection, where high speed broadband is taken to mean 15 Mbps and faster download speeds. So what do we think the position is in Wales? Our absolute latest figures show that 95.6% of Wales has access to a high speed broadband option, 94.2% to a superfast (30 Mbps and faster) option and Openreach has FTTP coverage amounting to 4.17% of premises (full fibre coverage rises to 4.44% once you add Hyperoptic).

If we remove all the distance limitations on VDSL2, we have a 97.1% number. Of course high percentages mean nothing if you are in a county such as Ceredigion where superfast coverage is running at just 75.8% (high speed 80.7%) and expressing that as 6200 premises out of 35,600 premises may help to make people realise the scope for people being angry. Premises don’t get angry, but people do and of course for residential households many do have more than 1 person living in them.

Looking to the future, while we can expect an announcement on the next Welsh broadband contract we don’t believe it is a contract signing announcement, there is still a procurement exercise under way, but Julie James AM believes work will start this spring. If the contract is not with BT then a lot of planning work would be needed, so it would seem unlikely that we will see any actual premises delivered this summer and while even if BT do secure the contract they are in a better position the fall-out over ‘promises’ in the first project will mean a lot more planning before committing to any new build, though part built FTTP areas will be low hanging fruit to show work is underway. To be totally frank, one of the worst things for the Superfast Cymru was the withdrawal from social media, it may have saved money by not employing a full time member of staff but as an avenue for finding out what is and is not going on in areas having someone answering these queries from the public and working with Openreach has led to an information vacuum.

At the end of the day those who had actually been given ‘promises’ of service coming to them and actually had seen and can still see part built infrastructure some sort of aggrement should have been thrashed out to see that these got delivered. Problems with wayleaves are commonly mentioned, and some of that may be traditional opposition to anything BT based and this is where one would hope Government officials would have been able to help in discussions. To add to the confusion the House of Commons Library has just adopted the Ofcom Connected Nations Report 2017, so there will be members of the various elected bodies across the UK using the Ofcom data to make the case that coverage is really bad, when the reality is that in seven months a nation like Wales added around 100,000 premises of superfast coverage.

Update 1:40pm Some more information on the Welsh situation has emerged following a meeting of the Welsh Assembly’s economic committee and is covered by the BBC[1], who pleasingly have a title of ‘high speed broadband to 96% of premises’ on a picture of some telecoms roadworks. The extra information is that the next phase of the roll-out programme is going to be handled via a number of lots, which opens up the procurement to not just one winner but perhaps multiple infrastructure providers and varying technology solutions. Apparently this is to help address the specific problems that different parts of Wales have, though through our map based travels of late across Wales there are many variations in premise density from large caravan parks that would benefit from improved wireless coverage to remote premises with single road access and postcodes where a fibre PON exists and is live for a dozen premises but the remaining 8 are left out, then of course areas such as Puncheston (Pembrokeshire) where there is no superfast options at all, or a group of a dozen businesses on exchange only lines in the centre of a town or village surrounded by others with access to FTTC.

Put more bluntly the situation as you get into the final few percent is almost individual to that premise or cluster of premises.


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