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.
2018 saw a mixed picture when it came 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, 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 has just been announced (January 2019) but my view is that there should have been a seamless transition between phase one and two of the scheme but almost a year has now gone by since the end of phase 1 of the scheme, serving 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 what "unforeseen complexities" have contributed to the delay in commissioning this contract and questions still remain, including exactly 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 two 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