£80m superfast broadband drive for Wales unveiled

Image source, Thinkstock

Contracts to connect nearly 100,000 homes in Wales to high speed internet are being put out for tender.

It is hoped up to 88,000 properties not reached by a previous project will be connected under an £80m scheme targeting particular areas, with Powys and Ceredigion named as priorities.

Figures show superfast broadband - at least 30Mbps - is currently available to around 94% of premises in Wales.

It has been welcomed by businesses who claim there is a "digital divide".

Julie James, the minister responsible for digital infrastructure, told AMs on Tuesday that firms were invited to bid for three new contracts to extend the reach of superfast broadband, with an emphasis on rural areas, business use and ultrafast 100Mbps services.

Voucher schemes to help individual residents or firms boost their own connection speeds would also continue to be offered.

A broadband outreach team will also be set up to find solutions for communities who would not be served by firms winning contracts in the new tendering process.

Ms James added that Openreach - which said it boosted the reach of superfast broadband to 720,000 properties in Wales under the Superfast Cymru project - had agreed to connect an extra 2,500 homes over the next two months at no extra charge to the taxpayer.

Ofcom data analysed by the House of Commons library found that communities in Wales had an average broadband speed of 35.4Mbps compared to a UK average of 44.6Mbps.

The ward of Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd/Llangynhafal in Denbighshire had the highest percentage of lines, 94%, unable to receive "decent" download speeds of 10Mbps, compared to 3% of the UK as a whole.

Mark Thomas from Lydart, near Monmouth has just been connected after a seven year battle, while Chris Jones who lives nearby has no broadband at all.

Businessman Mr Thomas said there is "definitely a digital divide" in Wales.

In 2013, Openreach was hired to expand the reach of superfast broadband to 96% of premises in Wales under a contract with funding from Europe and the Welsh and UK governments.

Image caption,
The Superfast Cymru scheme aimed to extend the reach of high-speed broadband to 96% of Welsh premises

Before he was connected, Mr Thomas received speeds of just over 2Mbps, which he said is less than what you can get at the base camp of Mount Everest.

He now gets 18Mbps which for his business allows him to send large data files rather than have to wait overnight, upgrade software and "generally participate in the digital world".

However Mr Jones does not have any connection due to a gap in broadband coverage.

He is trying to set up a small business and said it is "embarrassing" when he has to pass data files to client on CD or memory stick.

He said he has been in this position for 10 years and has spoken to the assistant chief executive of BT who acknowledged the local line was not of sufficient quality to carry broadband, and that Mr Thomas would need to pay £25,000 if he wanted it improved.

Mr Thomas said there is "definitely a digital divide" and there had been "lots of small players trying to provide solutions".

"The customer is often left at the behest of small businesses often trying to take advantage of government grants, but they often don't have the capacity to deal with it.

"I think it's appalling that the citizens of Wales have to scratch around with small players to get what is effectively a national initiative."

Comments posted on social media indicated there were also pockets of urban areas including Cardiff where superfast broadband was not available.

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