Full speed ahead for broadband rollout

With our report into the Welsh Government’s ‘Superfast Cymru’ broadband project completed, Sophie Knott tells us about the scheme and the importance of maximising the benefits to the businesses and residents of Wales.

I am going to take a guess and say that at this very moment you are using some sort of broadband connection to read this blog. The internet is now an integral part of our day to day lives, often referred to as the ‘fourth utility’, as underlined by the 2010 European Union directive (A Digital Agenda for Europe) to ensure that all citizens have access to next generation broadband by 2020.

Next generation broadband, or ‘superfast’ broadband, typically refers to broadband delivered through fibre optic cables and produces faster broadband speeds compared with first generation broadband, usually greater than 24 Mbps.

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In Wales, internet service providers have been rolling out next generation broadband to parts of the country where they felt it was commercially viable. However, over half of Wales had no planned access. The Welsh Government’s ‘Superfast Cymru’ project was the answer to this. The agreement signed with BT is intended to provide access to next generation broadband for almost 700,000 premises, leaving just four per cent of Wales to be covered through other infill projects, all by the end of 2016. You can read more about the procurement and management of the contract in our report Welsh Government investment in next generation broadband infrastructure.

Getting connected

The report found that the Welsh Government is making reasonable progress towards providing access to next generation broadband for premises across Wales. However, the provision of infrastructure is of little value unless businesses and households actually take up the access and use it. Having access and actually getting broadband at a higher speed are two very different things. Responses from residents and businesses to a survey undertaken for our report highlighted that some people are still unaware they will need to upgrade their existing broadband service or take out a new product to benefit.

Our report recommends that the Welsh Government assesses and monitors the awareness of next generation broadband; and whether residents and businesses are content with the information they receive, to ensure everyone has the understanding they need.

Are you getting the full benefit?

Once you have your superfast broadband connection, what are you going to use it for? If you’re a household, you might be pleased that you can stream TV and films more easily and play more online games, but have you thought about having easier access to public services online, working from home, or everyone being able to access what they want at the same time? For businesses, you might notice quicker access to the internet and emails, but what about online data storage, quicker placing and receiving of orders, virtual networks allowing more flexible working, better quality video conferencing and internet phone calls, and greater customer engagement?

This is where benefit exploitation is key. The Welsh Government is currently developing its activity in this area including a national project for the exploitation by businesses to involve online tools, workshops, training and individual support; and a plan for public sector exploitation. The report recommends the development of a benefits management plan for the wider benefits of next generation broadband for households, businesses, and the public sector; and for the Welsh Government to review this plan on a regular basis.

As with any technology, there is unlikely to ever be 100 per cent take-up. Nor will every adopter of next generation broadband use it to its full potential and speeds may vary between premises. We also do not know the next technological advance around the corner. However, there are economic and social benefits to be gained now from the rollout of next generation broadband if people have the right knowledge and tools to access and exploit it.

You can find further information on access and benefits on www.superfast-cymru.com and http://business.wales.gov.uk/superfastbusinesswales/.

About the author:

Sophie Knott blog pic (2)Sophie Knott is a Performance Auditor at the Wales Audit Office, working on national value for money studies. She has worked at the WAO for two years, having previously qualified as an accountant and worked in financial audit at KPMG LLP.

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