Friday, September 14, 2012


Last month saw the announcement of a new £425 million agreement between the Welsh Government and BT to deliver next generation broadband to 96 per cent of Welsh homes and businesses by 2015.

This will result in 1.3 million Welsh premises gaining access to broadband speeds that are fifteen times faster than those available in Wales today.

 It is a major investment from the public purse, with the Welsh and UK Government contributing around £120m with £90m being allocated from European funding coffers. The aim, if the project is given the green light by the European Commission, is to make Wales a global leader in fibre broadband and create around 2,500 jobs within the Welsh economy.

Given that business organisations such as the CBI have been crying out for investment in infrastructure to help the Welsh economy, this state-of-the art investment certainly has enormous potential to make a real difference in attracting high value added businesses to Wales. It also has the potential to transform the trading fortunes of indigenous businesses although this will only happen if there is additional support to help Welsh firms make the most of the opportunities being created in today’s connected world.

At least by working in partnership with BT, there is the potential to learn from the Superfast Cornwall project the company has been successfully operating in the South West of England and where 15 per cent of the county’s European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) Convergence programme has been invested in broadband infrastructure.

The real value-added from their approach is that as well as providing high speed broadband, the Cornish project is also looking to support the local business community to engage with the new opportunities from a more connected world. For example, a new Superfast Cornwall Fund has been established to assist companies through grants of £1,000 to £50,000.

Activities to be supported can include developing new applications or web content; introducing cloud computing, video-conferencing and Voice Over Internet Telephone (VoIP) systems; developing a new approach to internet marketing and operations to enter new export markets; enabling a new business model which is driven by superfast broadband; and developing business collaboration and 'virtual teams'.

Certainly, the Welsh Government needs to make sure that a similar fund is established within Wales so that our businesses can develop the capability and capacity to take full advantage of this massive investment in broadband.

Equally important is the development of relevant skills and a recent University of Exeter report has already examined the skills needed by businesses to make the most of new superfast broadband, focusing on the South West of England. In particular, it asked how business can make the most of the so-called “digital natives”, namely those young people who live locally and are already sophisticated users of information technology?

 Recommendations for how to take this forward included the development a graduate internship programme focused on broadband and information technology, where young people could be placed in businesses to help them make the most of superfast broadband. There also needs to be continued engagement with some of the other big players in the information technology arena.

 Whilst the recent work with Google to improve the capability of Welsh firms to access the internet to improve their competitiveness was welcomed, there also needs to be stronger relationships with other key players such as Microsoft and Facebook so that the latest technologies, software and techniques are brought to Wales.

Higher education also needs to play its role, but in a far more constructive and coherent manner than has happened previously with the Institute of Advanced Telecommunications at Swansea University and the Centre for Advanced Software Technology at Bangor. In fact, what is needed is one Welsh Institute for Computing that brings together the best academics from all of our higher education institutions in this area and builds strong links with other world class computing institutes in institutions such as Stanford and MIT.

Finally, we need to get our young people to engage far more with computing than they currently do, despite their constant access to smartphones, playstations and social media. Recently, Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt noted that computing represented less than half of one per cent of A-Levels taken in the UK, which equates to just over 4,000 students a year.

Again, Wales could encourage greater numbers to develop formal skills in this discipline which could, over time, enable them to potentially become the next generation of internet business founders.

Therefore, whilst everyone would welcome the investment by the Welsh Government and BT into superfast broadband, it cannot be just about providing the best technology. We also need investment in training, research and developing our young people to make the most of this opportunity. Certainly, we must ensure that we do not end up having the equivalent of having three Ferraris in the garage, but no driving licence to take them out on the road.