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Oi, don't leave Cymru in broadband slow lane, MPs warn

Welsh demand alternatives to BT fibre

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The UK government's broadband rollout plan fails to address the needs of businesses in Wales, MPs have warned in a report published today. The dossier highlights an apparent "gap" in internet access in more remote parts of Cymru.

The House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee cautioned that too many "slow spots" and "not spots" remained in the country and claimed that the economy in Wales was suffering as a result because entrepreneurs were deterred from setting up shop there.

While the UK government has pledged to bring the "fastest broadband of any major European country" to 90 per cent of UK homes and businesses by the end of this Parliament in 2015, the Welsh Assembly is promising even more superfast network coverage for its citizens by mid-2016.

The committee's report said on Monday that "eradicating the remaining broadband notspots and slowspots in Wales must be the priority for both the UK and Welsh governments".

MPs added that mobile and satellite technologies should be promoted, particularly for more rural parts of Wales, to prevent an over-reliance on the rolling out of fibre optic cabling.

In the report, cross-party politicos recommended:

  • Ofcom undertake a study to evaluate whether satellite broadband should be supported more vigorously in Wales.
  • The delayed Spectrum auction, now planned for 2013, must ensure that 4G mobile services are available to at least 98 per cent of people in Wales.
  • Ofcom must continue its efforts to open up access to infrastructure in Wales. BT's market power must be regulated effectively to ensure efficient operation of the market.

Welsh Tory MP and chair of the committee David Davies claimed that decent internet access was increasingly becoming a "generator of economic success and a means of addressing social exclusion," before adding that some parts of Wales remained bereft of any broadband connection at all.

He further warned that time was running out for what he described as "extremely ambitious targets for broadband provision".

The report also offered up a few war of words between BT and its rival Virgin Media.

The committee said that VM's Matt Rogerson was among the witnesses to tell the MPs that BT has used its market power to squeeze out competitors who wanted access to its ducts and poles infrastructure.

"It is a tension throughout all the procurement processes across the UK. Basically, the company that is most likely to benefit from hundreds of millions of pounds is in charge of the product. The absence of a decent product will mean that no player other than BT can enter the procurement processes," Rogerson grumbled.

BT's director of Wales, Ann Beyon, responded thusly:

We absolutely welcome the concept of opening up our ducts and poles to other providers. That is an ongoing debate between ourselves and Ofcom. We have not agreed the pricing. There is certainly going to be room for manoeuvre on the pricing. We have two trialists working with us at the moment.

You must remember that when you do something quite dramatic like using poles and ducts and allowing other people into that infrastructure, which is critical and has to be protected for the customers' benefit, you have to do proper trials.

Those trials are ongoing. The discussions with Ofcom are ongoing and the engagement with the industry is ongoing. It is going to happen. There is a negotiation and we cannot predict what is going to happen.

In July, BT won hefty government funds to roll out a faster broadband network to Wales. Sole rival Fujitsu withdrew from the race for securing Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) investment in the country earlier this year, leaving BT as the sole bidder.

The Welsh fibre broadband project is understood to be worth around £425m, which includes £220m injected into the scheme by BT, £58m from the Welsh government, £57m from BDUK and a £90m wodge from the European Regional Development Fund. ®

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