My View: ‘Modern, high-quality digital infrastructure is fundamental for the future of North Wales’s economy’
With ASKAR SHEIBANI
Chair of DBF & CEO of Comtek Network Systems
When British Telecom was privatised in 1984, the Government made a huge mistake and allowed BT, as the telecommunications provider, to own the infrastructure. This part of the company is now known as Openreach. This is just like allowing train companies (such as Aviva or Virgin) to own the railway network infrastructure. This mistake created a gigantic monopoly leading to a severe and detrimental lack of competition within the telecoms sector. It also contributed to the ongoing delay in upgrading the UK’s telecoms infrastructure from Victorian-era copper to today’s standard fibre optic cables.
The presence of a monopoly does not help innovation, service quality, or price competitiveness. Luckily in recent years, the Government, together with telecoms regulator Ofcom, have finally began to encourage new alternative telecoms providers and investors to enter the market. We now have a much more prosperous outlook, with fantastic investors armed with the multi-billion-pound cash availability to plunge into modernising the UK’s network infrastructure.
Just three years ago, in 2017, only 0.7% of the UK’s buildings were connected with full fibre broadband. The UK was the worst location in Europe for digital connectivity, with North Wales being one of the most badly affected regions. In contrast, countries like Sweden and South Korea were positioned far ahead of us, with over 80% of their buildings benefitting from gigabit connectivity.
In September 2017, through the DBF (a grassroots business organisation), a campaign was launched demanding an affordable Full Fibre Gigabit speed (1000 x Meg) broadband for North Wales.
The DBF organised a digital connectivity conference on February 23, 2018 bringing together the Full Fibre-based telecoms providers from all over the UK together with DCMS (UK government), delegates from the North Wales’s public sector and the business community. The conference aimed to promote and highlight the crucial significance of Gigabit Speed digital connectivity infrastructure to North Wales’ economy. The DBF supported the NWEAB to make a bid on behalf of the six authorities in North Wales, for a UK government grant (DCMS) for Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN). Many other local authorities throughout the UK applied for and won substantial grants. They managed through the tender system to identify more innovative new telecoms organisations to deploy Full-Fibre digital connectivity, hence connecting their public sector buildings with a gigabit-speed network.
The NWEAB won approximately £8m to connect the public buildings with Full Fibre network using BT as the preferred supplier.
However, the NWEAB has allocated only £34m out of the £240m North Wales Growth Deal money for the upgrade of our digital infrastructure. Despite this, a great opportunity has now opened up to seek private sector expertise in using this small fund wisely. Ultimately, we must attract more innovative, independent investors and facilitate the chance for them to compete against unfair ownership arrangements. A fairer environment will lead to competitive prices and higher service quality for our businesses and residents alike.
The recent global pandemic has once again demonstrated the urgent need to upgrade the UK’s digital connectivity. With businesses now reliant on employees having the means to work effectively from home – the consequences of increased bandwidth demand can only be met by a rapid and determined overhaul of our telecoms infrastructure. Here in North Wales, we could benefit hugely from the advent of 5G, but this technology is impossible without the deployment of full fibre.
North Wales is very fortunate to have a Welsh Government-owned Fibre Network called Fibrespeed. They have already created a core network which other providers can link to. There is a great opportunity now to seek the private sector expertise and use the small fund from the Growth Deal wisely. We must attract more innovative, independent investors and use of the Fibrespeed network will create a fair chance for independent telecoms providers to compete against the monopoly of BT. A fair environment will provide competitive prices and a high-quality service for our businesses and residents alike. A modern, high-quality Gigabit Speed connectivity underpins all sectors of our economy and has to be a number one priority infrastructure investment in North Wales.