Opinion: Shambolic Broken Broadband Rollout
Unfinished Welsh connection schemes set to remain unfinished
From our house in Llansawel, north Carmarthenshire, I can see a roll of ‘fibre to the premises’ (FTTP) cable tied to a telegraph pole in our street. The cable has been there since 2016. To bring it here, workmen for Openreach – which is owned by BT — dug trenches in the recently resurfaced roads of our village. We were told that high-speed broadband was on its way.
It was not.
What’s the point of bringing fibre optic cable into the heart of a village and then looping it up for an indefinite wait?
Fast broadband for this village is not included in the next contract, either. Our postcode is excluded from the Welsh Government’s ‘white list’ of areas expected to benefit. Openreach’s fibre broadband checker (www.homeandbusiness.openreach.co.uk/fibre-broadband/when-can-i-get-fibre) confirms this: “We are exploring solutions…. ….but don’t have a plan for your area yet”.
So they don’t have a plan to finish the uncompleted project, but will be moving on to start rollouts elsewhere – rollouts which themselves may remain unfinished when the next tranche of money runs out.
The first rollout programme, which was supposed to include our village, was backed with £225 million from the Welsh Government, but when the budget was used up, Openreach stopped work, leaving our project and several others unfinished.
This unsatisfactory outcome was highlighted by the telecoms news service ISPreview on October 31st 2018, which reported that premises which cannot get a fibre broadband service under the first contract are not included in the second contract. ISPreview added on November 5th that “It is presently unclear how many premises unable to order fibre broadband, that were in the scope of the first contract, fall outside the scope of the second contract.”
‘Rodney’ from Ceredigion, commenting to ISPreview on this unwelcome news, said:
“Just another shambles by the clowns in the WA [Welsh Assembly]. Ceredigion is littered with unconnected fibre cables, some attached to posts, some lying in the grass verges, still on the drum…. Many of these areas have cables run up to villages, hamlets etc with only a few sections missing, but they’re not going to be included in phase 2 of this omnishambles.”
“Who in their right mind signs up to contracts that allow fibre infrastructure to be installed in such a haphazard, disconnected way (literally). It was completely pointless allowing installers to start runs of fibre without them being contractually required to see those runs being connected to properties. It beggars belief that anyone would agree to such a ludicrous plan… As things stand right now, many parts of Wales will remain unconnected for years as the unconnected shiny new fibre cables rot on the posts or get chewed up by hedge trimmers.”
What a colossal waste of money!
Welsh Government Minister under pressure at packed meeting
Public annoyance, anger even, spilled over in Pontargothi Hall on Thursday (January 24th) when in a meeting hosted by Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price AM, more than 100 residents from north Carmarthenshire interrogated Lee Waters, Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport in the Welsh Government, Adrian Berry, Senior Project Manager for Openreach in Cardiff, and other officials about the repercussions of broadband market failure.
The Westminster Government has not yet imposed a duty on broadband infrastructure providers – and except in Kingston-upon-Hull, that means Openreach – to connect every household and business that requests one. Yet that same government has made Universal Credit a digital-only benefit, making no provision for people who do not have access to reliable broadband (or for applicants without digital skills, but that is another story). Businesses must also file, online, documents such as annual confirmation statements and VAT returns. Rural businesses in slow- or no-broadband areas are at a big disadvantage. If they cannot file online, how can they sell online?
Surely it is unjust for government to demand online communications from the population without also requiring universal broadband infrastructure?
The frustrations evident in the meeting seemed to surprise Lee Waters, the Assembly Member for (urban) Llanelli. He had nothing immediate to offer.
Only 45% of Wales geographically was populated enough for internet service providers to bring broadband on a commercial basis, he said. The Welsh Government had spent more than £200 million to subsidise broadband availability, and in Carmarthenshire overall about 85% of households could get a service. Adam Price pointed out that in the Carmarthen East and Dinewfr constituency, a wide rural area without any large towns and in which Pontargothi is located, availability is only 79%.
The Welsh Government has found about £62.5 million in a second phase of contracts to bring fast broadband to more premises across the whole of Wales, but has not insisted that the rolls of fibre optic cable stranded in phase 1 can finally be connected to the homes and businesses for which they were intended. Initially there was a hope that 88,000 more premises would be connected, but late in October 2018 that figure was downgraded to 16,000.
In Carmarthenshire alone between 12,000 and 13,000 households[i] have either very poor broadband or old-technology dial-up over their land line telephone (provision of a telephone service is a universal service obligation!). Clearly if the all-Wales target is 16,000, Carmarthenshire’s share will be a small fraction of that, nowhere near enough to meet the need.
Maybe the Welsh Government is expecting too much from a planned universal service obligation for broadband which the Westminster government expects to bring in from 2020. This will not be fast broadband, though, as the minimum download speed is set at 10 Mbps (Megabits per second), and the obligation will apply only if connection costs less than £3,400.
A speed of 10 Mbps is at best only one-third the speed of ‘Superfast’ (30 Mbps and more) and one-thirtieth the speed of ‘Ultrafast’ (300 Mbps and over). Rural Wales will remain disadvantaged.
Wealthy individuals and large businesses can pay for expensive connections themselves, or use vouchers as part-payment, but these schemes discriminate against people (the majority) who are on modest incomes.
The voucher schemes in Wales are Ultrafast Connectivity for businesses, worth 100% of the cost up to £3,000 and 50% between £3,000 and £17,000. There is also Access Broadband Cymru, offering up to £800 for at least doubling download speed. In 2016 and 2017 only 128 applications for Access Broadband Cymru, and just eight for Ultrafast Connectivity, were approved and installed.[ii] These schemes have been little used, probably because households and small businesses cannot afford their share of the cost.
They are not the answer to market failure. Neither is a cost-limited, minimum-standard universal service obligation.
[i] Based on the stated 15% of approximately 81,450 households which do not have any or very poor access to a broadband service. The figure does not include business premises.
[ii] Figures from House of Commons Library Briefing CBP 06643, November 13th 2018, by Georgina Hutton and Carl Baker.