Welsh £100m broadband strategy questioned
The Welsh government is facing questions over its broadband strategy following confirmation that part of its £30m investment in FibreSpeed, a £30m, 200-mile optical fibre to the premises (FTTP) network that connects 14 business parks in North Wales, is lying dormant.
Graham Leach, FibreSpeed’s GM, confirmed that some network elements were still dormant, limiting the reach of the network, but referred questions over the reason to the government.
Richard Brown, who runs Wispa, a Welsh broadband consultancy, invited Chris Johnson, the Welsh government’s representative on the FibreSpeed project, to explain to a public meeting why part of the network not being used.
The meeting, due on Friday, was cancelled when Johnson declined the invitation and offered a written reply. According to unconfirmed reports, the Welsh government was waiting for permission from the European Commission, which supplied some of the money for FibreSpeed.
Asked by Br0kenTeleph0ne to clarify the situation, a Welsh government spokesman said, “The Welsh government has worked with the European Commission throughout the FibreSpeed project to ensure compliance with all relevant rules and regulations and this is an ongoing process.”
Pressed on whether parts of the network were dormant, the spokesman said he had nothing to add to his statement.
FibreSpeed’s physical infrastructure is owned by the Welsh government, but supplied and operated under a 15 year contract by FibreSpeed, a Geo Networks subsidiary.
FibreSpeed’s Leach said that the government had yet to develop four of the planned 14 business parks linked to the FibreSpeed network.
However, Br0kenTeleph0n3 has learned that at least 40 subscribers on the island of Angelsey were denied high speed broadband access because the Welsh government has not allowed FibreSpeed to light an already-installed fibre link to a radio mast. If this link was lit, subscribers could receive up to a 100Mbps service.
Instead, that part of Angelsey is now served via a microwave link from the mainland, which added more than £20,000 to the cost.
Br0kenTeleph0n3 has also learned that the government could improve wireless broadband access to subscribers in Parc Cybi, a business park near Holyhead, if it permitted a 10 metre extension to an existing 15 metre mast at a cost of some £11,000 to £15,000. Planning permission for the extension was granted in April 2011, but nothing has been done.
BT said on 21 July it would provide an “up to” 20Mbps fixed wire service in Holyhead on the island.
Leach said FibreSpeed was fulfilling three of the Welsh government’s main reasons for building the network. These were to attract new businesses to North Wales, to create jobs, and to address a market failure.
Leach said that before FibreSpeed opened, BT’s prices were 2.5 to seven times higher in North Wales than in the south-east of England. Now they were on a par, he said.
Leach said that although FibreSpeed was thought up as an open access business network, internet service providers had used it to extend broadband connectivity to residents in rural “not spots” using wireless.
He said the network provided a minimum connection of 10Mbps up to 1Gbps, However, the ISPs generally offered a 6Mbps service to keep prices to around £20/month.
The Welsh government’s department for the economy and transport, considered a proposal in October 2008 to convert FibreSpeed into “an open access network to improve the availability and affordability of very high speed broadband services delivering a competitive wholesale backbone core network across Wales”, and budgeted an extra £785k to see it through. That was kicked into the long grass.
Leach is now concerned about FibreSpeed’s status as Wales prepares to spend more than £100m, some £57m coming from the UK government’s BDUK agency, on its Next Generation Broadband Wales (NGBW) project. The NGBW aims to provide a 30Mbps broadband service to most Welsh homes.
The Welsh government spokesman said all bidders in the NGBW procurement process were free to discuss how to exploit the FibreSpeed network. “The EC state aid guidelines for broadband encourage use of existing infrastructure wherever possible, and Ofcom is currently looking at UK regulations to ensure equitable widespread access to infrastructure across the UK, including Wales,” he said.
Final NGBW bids close on 30 September. Leach said he was unaware of any clear plans to integrate FibreSpeed into the NGBW system. No-one from the Welsh government had approached him, nor had he been approached by anyone from three of the four short-listed bidders, a Balfour Beatty-led consortium with Alcatel-Lucent and Cable & Wireless Worldwide, BT, Fujitsu. Geo Networks is the fourth bidder.