The Pembrokeshire (Sir Benfro) council in South West Wales has revealed the outline of a new plan that aims to help spread the availability of ultrafast “full fibre” broadband connectivity across rural parts of the county, which among other things includes a £2m investment to boost existing voucher schemes and a LFFN bid.
According to the Council’s Cabinet Member for Economy, Paul Miller, some 88% of Pembrokeshire can already access a fixed “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) network but this drops to under 6% of “ultrafast” (100Mbps+) speeds and 2.5% are said to be “still stuck with less than 2Mbps.”
“Sitting on the very western tip of Wales it is obvious to anyone that we’re never going to be the best connected county in terms of road or rail – that we accept,” said Councillor Miller. “We could, however, be the best digitally connected place in Wales, maybe even the UK. That’s our ambition.”
Unfortunately Miller doesn’t set any clear targets for achieving the council’s ambition but he has at least “come up with a plan that we are convinced can make a difference.”
The 4 Step Broadband Plan for Pembrokeshire
We’re going to intervene where we can easily do so. We’ve applied for funding under the Department for Culture Media and Sport’s (DCMS) Local Full Fibre Networks Programme (LFFN). We know the outcome of that application, but I cannot yet say. Let us assume though that we will be successful.
That funding enables us, by 2021, to connect up a large number of public sector buildings – GP surgeries, libraries, leisure centres – to full fibre broadband. It creates a great base from which suppliers will make full fibre connections available to the homes and businesses nearby.
We have divided the county into eighty, loosely defined, project areas that cover the whole of Pembrokeshire. We’ve invited providers to give us an indicative price to connect every property in those areas to full fibre. We’ve had some big numbers back, but, based on what we’ve seen so far, we believe it can be done.
We’ve employed a team, funded by the Council, specifically to work with communities in those zones to draw down as many funding vouchers as possible. Vouchers are a UK and Welsh Government initiative that provides funding of up to £1,500 per household and £5,500 per business to support the build of fibre infrastructure (details).
Cabinet will soon be considering a proposal to create a £2 million pot of Council funding to top-up the voucher money where it isn’t enough to complete a zone. £2 million will not be enough, but it’s a start. If the Prime Minister really wants to deliver by 2025, we will be looking to him for more.
The approach of bigger vouchers and LFFN contracts is something we’ve seen plenty of times before in other areas. Meanwhile Step Two isn’t so much a plan as a statement of the obvious, although we hope they move to flesh that and the other steps out with more detail in the near future.
Councillor Miller said:
“Our property team have been tasked with ensuring we never refuse permission to broadband providers to use our land.
Our highways team are exploring innovative ways of using the highways and footpaths criss-crossing Pembrokeshire to bring fibre cables to people’s front doors and our planning team are working out how we best ensure that all new development in Pembrokeshire incorporates a direct fibre connection.”
This is a big undertaking. It is going to require commitment from all levels of government but it can be done.
I am making a start on getting the message out there – we are absolutely determined to deliver a step-change in digital connectivity in Pembrokeshire
I want our residents to know we are on the case. I want government to know that we are ready to get stuck in. I want business in Pembrokeshire to know that we are determined to get them better connected.”
We suspect that the Welsh Government’s rather lacklustre Phase Two broadband rollout contract with BT (Openreach) may be partly to blame for the current situation (details), not least in respect to a growing desire among local authorities to try and tackle the broadband problems in Wales themselves (i.e. because the Welsh and UK Governments have struggled to do it).
The Phase Two contract is expected to provide a further 26,000 premises with access to “fast reliable broadband” (mostly ultrafast FTTP) across Wales by March 2021 – at a cost of nearly £22.5m – but that’s well below the project’s original ambition, which touted a desire to achieve near universal coverage (the remaining gap left to fill is several times larger).
On the upside it’s good to see the Pembrokeshire council taking a more pro-active approach, rather than waiting for the Welsh Government to figure out a solution on their behalf. People in rural areas are tired of waiting. Interestingly there’s no mention of the forthcoming 10Mbps USO above (here), which deserves a mention and is due to be implemented from March 2020; even if for most people it will only provide a 4G wireless connection.