Mid Wales is a hub of innovative business and enterprising people. Poor 3G and 4G mobile signal and lack of high speed broadband are holding the local economy back.
We have seen a mixed picture when it comes to narrowing the digital divide between those in urban and rural areas of Wales. Ofcom's Connected Nations Report for 2018, conducted a case study which focused on Montgomeryshire's digital connectivity. It found that a higher proportion of premises in Montgomeryshire are without access to "decent broadband" (a download speed of at least 10Mbit/s) compared with the average for Wales (3%) but in the rural parts of Montgomeryshire this rises to 19% without a decent broadband connection.
When it comes to high speed broadband of 30 Mbit/s or more, 80% of Montgomeryshire can now receive high speed broadband (98% in urban areas and 70% in rural areas) and it is welcome news that phase 1 of the Superfast Cymru broadband scheme, which concluded in February 2018, has delivered fibre broadband to those who would have never received it without public intervention. Indeed, 27% of premises in rural Montgomeryshire can receive fibre to the premises which delivers ultra-fast broadband speeds.
However, this has meant that the digital divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" has widened and since February 2018, the rollout of fibre broadband to the significant minority of premises which remain left in the lurch has totally ground to a halt.
The second phase of Superfast Cymru for Montgomeryshire was announced in January 2019 but my view is that there should have been a seamless transition between phase one and two of the scheme. This delay has served to add to the frustration of people who remain without any broadband at all, not alone high speed broadband.
We are still yet to know how many premises in Montgomeryshire are going to be provided with fibre broadband, what type of connections will be used for the rollout, what timescale will they be working to and how many premises will remain stranded and without high speed broadband after phase 2 concludes.
Broadband is now considered the fourth utility, is an essential part of modern life and is no longer a "nice to have" luxury. It is also essential for a thriving Mid Wales economy so from my perspective, I will keep asking probing questions of the Welsh Government and Openreach until such time as all people in Montgomeryshire are able to benefit from the same high speed broadband which is enjoyed and taken for granted by people in more urban areas of Wales.
Residents can find out whether or not they are included in the rollout of phase 2 of the Superfast Cymru programme by visiting the online checker by clicking here
When it comes to mobile coverage, it would be wrong to suggest that the situation hasn't improved in 2018 with more mobile services being delivered into many more rural communities. Voice services from at least one operator are available in 96% of Montgomeryshire, but availability from all operators is significantly lower at 68%. The availability of 4G services from at least one operator is 87% and 4G availability from all four operators drops to 49%. Nevertheless, mobile coverage in Montgomeryshire continues to lag behind the Wales and UK average.
While operators must bear some of the burden of tackling some of the hardest valleys and communities to reach, public sector intervention, in terms of both policy change and political support, will be needed. The Welsh Government's Mobile Action Plan, which is now three years old, has been proven to be little more than a set of warm words rather than concrete commitments, and unfortunately, the drive behind that plan seems to have dissipated with none of the proposals yet implemented in any meaningful way.
During that same time period, we have seen new planning policy and updated guidance in England and Scotland which has helped prepare for 5G deployment and speed up the process for new mobile phone masts in appropriate locations; a pilot of non-domestic rate relief; the launch of a publicly funded capital investment project in Scotland and an updated accord with National Parks England that recognises the importance of digital connectivity to the residents, businesses and visitors to these sensitive rural areas.
This political inertia in Wales when it comes to creating the right regulatory, political and commercial conditions necessary for mobile operators to invest in digital connectivity is putting Mid Wales at a further disadvantage so in 2019, I will be urging the Welsh Government to use the devolved policy levers at their disposal and commit to a public date by which these much needed reforms will be delivered so that Mid Wales doesn't fall further behind.
Indeed, the Economy, Infrastructure & Skills Committee, which I Chair, has recently made a series of recommendations for the Welsh Government to consider including the need to create the right planning and economic conditions for operators to invest in mobile coverage improvements in rural areas. My colleagues and I who sit on the Committee will await with interest at how they respond to our recommendations.
The Committee's report is available to view here
I also recently conducted an online survey about mobile coverage in Montgomeryshire and I'm grateful to those who took part. 45% of respondents said that they were EE customers and 15% said thay were Vodafone customers with other providers making up the remainder but coverage both at home and "on the move" was generally poor with 53% of respondents complaining of very poor or non-existent coverage in their area and only 15% confirming that their mobile signal was excellent or good.
I recently met with Cllr. Phil Graham, Chair of Llanwddyn Community Council to discuss the ongoing mobile coverage in the area around Lake Vyrnwy and I'm pleased to say that there should be an improvement following the Home Office's appointment of EE (part of BT Group) to deliver the Emergency Services Network. While they haven’t been able to give an activation date, I am told the actual physical build of the new masts is now largely complete and they are in the process of installing the equipment that will make the new sites live.
If a service can be made commercially available, EE will ensure that this is available on a wholesale basis to all mobile network operators so it is hoped that new masts in Montgomeryshire will benefit residents as well as provide an essential communications network to the emergency services.
However, each site has to be assessed on a case by case basis as to whether it can provide a commercial service over and above services to the emergency services. One of the primary determinants of that is nature of the link from the site back to the main core telecommunications network. This could be dependent on whether the site is scheduled to be linked to the core network via satellite, as opposed to a physical fibre or another link. Satellite does not rule out a commercial service being offered from it, but it does make it less likely.
EE are in the process of producing briefing packs that show where every ESN site is and what the current and potentially future 4G coverage is projected to be. I will keep residents informed when the information is made public.
In October 2019, the UK’s four mobile network operators (MNOs) and the UK Government also announced a £1 billion proposal to build a Shared Rural Network that would see 4G mobile coverage extended to 95% of the UK’s landmass.
To help reach 95%, the Shared Rural Network proposal will be delivered by focusing on eliminating virtually all partial not-spots (i.e. where there is coverage from one or more operators, but not all). This will be made possible by all four MNOs sharing each other’s infrastructure.
New publicly funded infrastructure, to be shared by all four MNOs, will also be built in areas of the country where there is currently no coverage (total not-spots).
Both industry and the UK Government aim to reach a formal agreement in the near future in what should be a positive development for mobile coverage here in Montgomeryshire.