Is Wales starting down the road of rationing its broadband spending?
While Wales has allocated around £425m towards improving broadband, this is just a fraction of the £15.4 billion budget that is the Welsh Budget for Growth. One aspect of the growth plan is the establishment of Local Growth Zones, with the Powys Local Growth Zone (LGZ) being the trail blazer. The LGZ's while not the same as Enterprise Zones are not that far removed, the emphasis being more towards local small businesses than attracting large employers to an area which has been the old Enterprise Zone mantra.
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As part of the Powys Local Growth Zone, broadband that is ubiquitous and fast is seen as key, as well as WiFi coverage for towns and better mobile coverage at 3G and 4G standards.
"The group notes that the provision of next generation broadband across the whole of Wales by the end of 2015 is already a priority for the Welsh Government. However, the Group recommends that Welsh Government should ensure that LGZs receive comprehensive broadband coverage as a priority as part of the first phase of roll out of its Next Generation Broadband project. This will enable Powys businesses to compete on a more level playing field, accessing relevant services, new markets, networking opportunities, business support, skills and training, and other knowledge.
Further, the Group recommends that provision of broadband should also be linked to provision of WiFi across all of the LGZ towns. Whilst this is an issue to be tackled at a more local level, the Group believe that it is important that the Welsh Government supports such a move."
In terms of the roll-out of better broadband be that superfast broadband via FTTC, FTTP or some other form of service that is better than the nothing some areas have and that at least meets the UK wide 2 Mbps USC target, there is a sense that you have to start somewhere, and targetting the growth zones seems sensible. A 30 minute statement on the report by Business and Enterprise Minister Edwina Hart can be viewed online on the BBC news website.
The danger behind targetted funding is that if the work to improve broadband proves more costly than the simple projections already done, then the project might roll out of steam. Taking a cyncical approach, one might conclude that this is why the funding is being targetted, so that the areas which may show a reasonable outcode will get served before the funds run out, with further requests in the future to actually improve services for those in the most rural areas.
Powys can lay claim to being the most sparsely populated county in England and Wales are 25 persons per square kilometre (Wales as a whole is 145 per sq km) and a total population of 131,313. The proportion living in villages, hamlets and isolated dwellings is 59% compared to the UK average of 13%.
At this stage it appears that if you live within the LGZ corridor in Powys, better broadband looks pretty certain in the next few years, outside that area businesses and residents may still have a fight on their hands to ensure they are not bypassed, or simply left until the funding is down to its last few ha'pennies and a voucher for a satellite dish is all that is available, allowing the 2 Mbps USC box to be ticked.