Broadband update: UK Government should “enable the last 1% to access decent broadband”

Published 14/11/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

On 16 November the Senedd will debate the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee report Digital connectivity - broadband. The Welsh Government accepted all of the Committee’s recommendations.  

Over the past eight years the gap between superfast broadband availability in Wales and the UK average has narrowed dramatically, following investment led by the Welsh Government through its Superfast Cymru programme.

The Welsh Government has invested in broadband, a reserved area, through individual grants and large-scale infrastructure projects, but in early 2022 it scaled back this funding. The Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters MS, said that the Welsh Government had been “letting the UK Government off the hook” by funding something that is Westminster’s responsibility.

A recent Senedd Committee report agreed with this analysis and called on the UK Government to provide access for premises that cannot get decent broadband, with engagement from the Welsh Government to ensure these solutions are fit for Wales.

0.6% of premises cannot get decent broadband

Back in 2014, only 55% of residential premises in Wales could access broadband at speeds of 30 Megabits per second (Mbps) or higher, compared to 75% across the UK as a whole. In 2022, this figure had increased to 95% (UK average 96%). This is the sort of speed that enables one person to stream 4K/Ultra High Definition video or for several devices to work simultaneously.

Coverage of premises by fixed broadband networks in Wales compared to the UK average 2022

Metric  Wales UK
Full fibre [1] 35% 37%
300 Mbps or faster 49% 68%
100 Mbps or faster 51% 70%
30 Mbps or faster 95% 96%
10 Mbps or faster 97% 98%
Less than 10 Mbps download speed or 1 Mbps upload speed 3% 2%


Source: Connected Nations update: Autumn 2022 – Interactive report - Ofcom

[1] The connection from the exchange to the premises is provided entirely over optical fibre. Generally, distance to the premises does not affect the speed delivered.

Ofcom estimates that around 10,000, or 0.6% of premises in Wales cannot get a decent broadband service of at least 10Mbps download speed and 1Mbps upload speed from either fixed or fixed wireless networks. For comparison, in 2019, 98% of premises in Wales had access to Digital Terrestrial Television, and 81% of properties were on the gas grid

Welsh Government interventions

Over the past decade, Welsh Government broadband policy has had two main prongs: giving grants to individuals, and paying broadband providers (in every case BT) to deploy fast broadband en masse outside of commercially viable areas.

The original Superfast Cymru scheme, which ran from 2012-18, saw BT being paid £220 million to connect about 700,000 premises to superfast broadband (i.e. over 24 Mbps).

BT is currently delivering, through its infrastructure subsidiary Openreach, a successor scheme for the Welsh Government to connect about 37,000 additional premises by March 2023. Recently the Welsh Government reduced the number of premises from 39,000 and extended the deadline. The Welsh Government is contributing £24 million of a total public funding of £55 million. The rest of the public money is coming from the EU (£29 million) and the UK Government (£2 million).

Get myself connected

A range of grants are available from the Welsh and UK Governments for people who want to improve their broadband connections.

  • The Welsh Government’s Access Broadband Cymru provides grants to individuals for new broadband connections for homes and businesses in Wales of up to £800.
  • The Welsh Government has also made £10 million available to support local authorities and social enterprises to deliver broadband projects locally through a Local Broadband Fund.
  • The UK-wide Universal Service Obligation (USO) enables people to request an improved connection from BT where they can’t access “decent” broadband (10 Mbps download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed) and won’t be connected by another scheme within 12 months. BT should provide a connection where this will cost less than £3,400: above this the customer can choose to cover the excess. The Committee called for the Welsh Government to discuss this price cap with the UK Government, to ensure that it reflects the increased costs of broadband installation since the scheme was launched in 2020.

By autumn 2021, 108 USO orders had been placed in Wales since the scheme was launched in March 2020, which should serve 689 homes. This is about 7% of the homes in Wales that don’t have access to decent broadband from either a fixed or wireless solution.

Gigabit vouchers: Welsh Government no longer “letting the UK Government off the hook”

The UK Government’s Gigabit broadband voucher scheme provides funding of up to £1,500 for homes and £3,500 for businesses for installing gigabit-capable broadband (i.e. 1,000 Mbps) in rural areas. Up until March 2022, the Welsh Government would double this funding in certain circumstances. The Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters MS, told the Senedd’s Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee that this additional money had been "hiding the embarrassment of the UK Government, where its voucher top-up scheme was not sufficient to meet the extra connectivity costs in Wales”.

Telecommunications is a reserved matter. The Deputy Minister felt that, through spending the Welsh Government’s funding on a non-devolved function, “the UK Government is making us spend money in areas where we shouldn't be spending money […] we were letting the UK Government off the hook.”

The Committee agreed with this position. It called on the UK Government to provide access for premises that cannot get decent broadband, with engagement from the Welsh Government to ensure these solutions are fit for Wales.

Use of digital services mirror other inequalities in society

If people want access to decent broadband, and can pay for it, over 99% of Wales can. However, research by the Welsh Government shows that 7% of adults are not online, and access to online services mirrors other inequalities in society.

The starkest distinction is age. 98% of those aged 16-49 used the internet compared with 49% of those aged 75 or older. And those in employment were more likely to have internet access at home (96%) than those who were unemployed (84%) or economically inactive (78%).

Six broadband providers offer lower cost “social tariffs” to eligible households. The Committee was shocked to learn that only 1.2% of eligible households were on a social tariff (this figure has since risen to 3.2%), and called on policymakers and broadband providers to increase take-up. The UK Government has since made plans to make it easier for people to sign up to social tariffs. 

Private and public funding continue to shrink the number of premises that cannot get a decent broadband connection. As the increased cost of living bites, a bigger challenge for politicians may be how people can afford the packages on offer.

Article by Robin Wilkinson, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament