Wales politics

Superfast Cymru broadband scheme 'failed to deliver', say AMs

Superfast Cymru has connected over 610,000 premises Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Superfast Cymru has connected over 610,000 premises

A £425m high speed broadband scheme has "failed to deliver", say AMs.

Superfast Cymru was set up to connect 655,000 homes and offices - or 96% of premises in Wales.

But AMs said the original June 2016 deadline for the contract with BT had been missed, with "damaging consequences".

Skills and Science Minister Julie James admitted completion dates had "moved back" but said it was a "very successful contract".

Over 610,000 premises have so far been connected, with an extra 40,000 to be set up by June 2017.

In October, a £12.9m project extension to complete the "final few per cent" of premises was announced, paid for by those taking up the service.

Image caption Russell George AM said Wales has the highest number of people in the UK who do not use the internet

A open market review later in the autumn will look into connecting any remaining premises, with work to start in early 2018.

According to thinkbroadband.com, Superfast Cymru costs £430 per customer.

The independent website said 88% of Wales was now covered by speeds of 30 megabytes per second (Mbps) or more - less than England's 91.9% coverage, but more than Scotland's 86.1% and Northern Ireland's 78.9%.

Last year, an report from the Ofcom watchdog said Wales had the highest broadband take-up of any of the devolved nations.

But during a debate in the Assembly chamber on Wednesday, Tory AM Russell George said that Wales still has the "highest level of people in Britain not using the internet."

'Damaging'

He added: "It's undeniable that the Welsh Government have failed to deliver to ensure all residential businesses will have access to next generation broadband by 2015.

"We are well off providing universal access.

"Constituents keep asking me why the Welsh Government just can't let them know when they are getting on with it."

Conservative AM Mohammad Asghar said the deadline had been extended "with damaging consequences for people and the economy."

He continued: "The Welsh Government is failing to meet the challenge. Over 14% never use the internet. 48% are without basic digital skills."

Image caption Plaid AM Dai Lloyd questioned the effectiveness of Superfast Cymru's marketing

Mr George also said it appeared that the Welsh Government and BT could "not be bothered" to market the project, despite spending "hundreds of millions" providing it.

Plaid Cymru AM Dai Lloyd also said fewer than one-in-three who are connected to Superfast Cymru are using it.

"We need to look at the effectiveness of this campaign to ensure more make use of this technology," he added.

'Absolute necessity'

The latest figures available from June show Superfast Cymru completion rates are lower in rural counties.

Merthyr Tydfil is the most well connected county, with 98.32% of eligible premises now set up with the service.

60.44% of premises in Ceredigion are connected, 65.67% in Powys, and 68.93% in Monmouthshire.

Farming unions have raised their concerns with NFU Cymru calling for a focus on rural areas, while the Farmers' Union of Wales has said there is a widening "digital divide" between rural Wales and the rest of the country.

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Media captionFarmer Gareth Lloyd, of Ceredigion, told BBC Wales his broadband "takes an age".

UKIP AM Neil Hamilton claimed one constituent's connection date had been rolled back nine times.

"Digital inclusion for the lower end of the income scale is a reality for which we should be ashamed," he added.

Image caption Skills and Science Minister Julie James said Wales is "at the forefront of connectivity"

The Welsh Government minister responded that broadband access is not currently classed as infrastructure, and the government "can't just throw money at it."

Ms James refuted that they have "broken their commitments", and said the "percentage and number of properties change all the time."

But, she admitted, completion dates were moved back "due to protracted negotiations with the national government and the EU."

"BT are not under any impression that I am complacent. I assure members it will happen or BT will face serious financial consequences," she added.

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