The Party of Wales (Plaid Cymru) appears to expecting a general election soon as they’ve recently set out a new – if somewhat familiar – three-point plan, which primarily aims to “eradicate Wales of broadband not-spots by 2025.” Sadly they neglect to define what “broadband” means, in terms of either speed or technology.
At present almost 100% of Wales can already access a basic bog standard broadband connection (ADSL2+) and so proposing to eradicate “broadband not-spots” doesn’t tell us much. By comparison data from Thinkbroadband predicts that 95% of Wales (premises) should now be able to order a fixed “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) service, while ultrafast (100Mbps+) networks only reach 37% and Gigabit “full fibre” (FTTP) covers around 9%.
The Welsh Government’s (WG) £22.5m Phase 2 Superfast Cymru contract with BT (Openreach) should be able to improve upon this a little by extending “fast reliable broadband” coverage – mostly ultrafast “full fibre” FTTP – to an additional 26,000 premises by March 2021 (details) but a big gap will remain.
Meanwhile the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has vaguely pledged to have “fantastic full fibre [FTTP] broadband sprouting in every household” by 2025, although he is yet to detail how such a seemingly unachievable date can be met. Plaid Cymru has similarly criticised this proposal for “not providing any detail and for failing to address the hurdles to delivering full fibre broadband.”
Plaid Cymru says that the UK Government “failed, in practical terms, to outline how it will target hard-to-reach areas, it has also failed to outline where it would direct the money.” Naturally after that we were expecting a little more detail from the party’s own plan and they did offer a bit, although what they propose is very familiar and it will take more to fix the problem.
Plaid Cymru’s Three-Point-Plan
* Cut the fibre tax – Fibre infrastructure currently has business rates applied to it, just like other commercial property. Plaid Cymru believes this discourages investment and should be rethought.
* New builds fit-for-purpose – Too many new homes are still being developed without provision for fibre broadband. Plaid Cymru wants all new build homes to incorporate gigabit-capable internet connections.
* Skills – A large number of engineers will be required to carry out all the work involved. Plaid Cymru would invest in training and skills for the industry to be able to meet the demand.
On the fibre tax, England has already introduced a 5 year relief from business rates on new fibre and Scotland has just improved upon this by offering a 10 year holiday. We’d agree that such measures can provide a significant boost (full fibre builders often have to wait 10-20 years for payback on their investment), although the party doesn’t say how long their tax break would last.
Meanwhile the pledge to ensure that all new build homes incorporate “gigabit-capable” connections seems to echo the UK Government’s existing consultations (here), which appear to be stuck in a state of limbo following recent changes in leadership and opposition from property developers (e.g. in some areas you can build the ducts, but getting gigabit ISPs to actually serve the site is not so easy – especially on smaller rural builds).
The support for helping to skill-up future engineers is most welcome, although again there’s a lack of detail on how much funding and what other facilities would be provided. The party added that its plan involves “listening to industry concerns and getting to the root of the problems telecoms providers face when attempting to install full fibre broadband in hard-to-reach areas,” which is always a good starting point.
Ben Lake MP, Plaid Cymru’s Westminster Digital Spokesperson, said:
“Broadband, or rather the lack of it, is restraining the rural economy in Wales, perhaps more than anything else. My constituency of Ceredigion is among the 10 worst constituencies for broadband speeds.
Wales has the perceived benefit of being able to receive investment from the Welsh Government and the UK Government, but so far both have failed to outline how broadband will be delivered to large parts of our country. In fact, Wales has lost out on crucial investment time after time.
Why should essential utilities, such as adequate broadband, be dismissed as luxuries for those who live in the countryside? If we are to make rural areas of Wales more practical places for businesses to locate and expand, and if we are to ensure that communities can fully benefit from the opportunities afforded by better digital connectivity, investing in broadband is crucial.
If we are serious about improving connectivity as a key to supporting and sustaining those entrepreneurial, innovative and hugely important businesses then it is no use making broad brush, sweeping pledges. Ambitious targets must be backed up by parity of funding and practical solutions. That is why Plaid Cymru’s three-point-plan is essential to eradicate Wales of broadband not-spots by 2025.”
We note that at the last General Election in 2017 the party pledged (here) to make “ultra-fast broadband available to all of Wales and rolling out 5G mobile signal nationwide,” although at the time they didn’t define what they meant by ultra-fast or set out a time-scale and any funding. This time around we’ve got a time-scale but no funding or clear definition of broadband, although the focus on business rates, skills and new builds is very welcome.
Realistically full fibre stands no chance of becoming available to every home and business in Wales by 2025 and so we suspect that the party would need to adopt a more technology neutral approach, including both fixed line and wireless solutions. Admittedly that might be difficult with the UK Government only approving schemes that predominantly harness full fibre.
The Boris Johnson effect is in full swing here because by setting a practically unachievable goal of 2025 he’s at least succeeded in making it incredibly difficult for other party’s to promise something better, although it’s good to see parties battling positively over full fibre.
In fairness all political parties tend to be vague when it comes to making manifesto style promises and in that sense Plaid Cymru has probably given us more detail than most.