Welsh broadband kicks England into touch

Interview: Welsh e-minister Andrew Davies believes the UK government must show more broadband leadership and take action to address market failure

The rest of the UK has a lot to learn from Wales when it comes to making a success of broadband, according to Andrew Davies, Welsh Assembly minister for economic development and ICT.

In an interview with ZDNet UK, Davies said he believes the principality can teach Westminster politicians a few things about successful public sector use of broadband, ADSL take-up, and innovative solutions for rural areas.

Davies, who is one of the driving forces behind the Broadband Wales Programme, also suggested that the UK government hasn't shown enough leadership in the broadband scene. The Broadband Wales Programme is a five-year, £115m plan aimed at delivering a thriving broadband market in Wales, and has seen considerable success that has put England's efforts in the shade.

"By March 2003, 47 percent of Welsh schools will have a broadband connection -- primary schools will have a 2Mbps connection, and secondary schools an 8Mbps link. In the NHS, 67 percent of Welsh GP practices already have a connection of at least 256Kbps," said Davies.

Across Britain, this kind of public sector demand is seen as key to driving broadband success -- as was seen last month when the prime minister, Tony Blair, announced that over £1bn will be spent on broadband for Britain's health, education and criminal justice services.

However, Blair only committed to getting every school broadband-enabled by 2006 -- which looks rather unimpressive given the state of play in Wales. "I think he was just talking about English schools," Davies jokingly suggested.

Davies later confirmed that he expected that all of Wales' schools would have a broadband connection before 2006.

Despite the fact that average earnings in Wales are only 80 percent of the UK average, take-up of commercial broadband services in some areas is impressive. In Cardiff, 12 percent of homes have signed up for ADSL, compared to the UK average of around 5 percent.

This robust take-up rate is thought to be partly due to the Broadband Wales Programme, which has led to increased customer awareness.

Unlike the UK government, which has put its faith in market forces to make Broadband Britain a success, the Welsh Assembly has realised it has a major role to play in driving rollout in rural areas.

"As a minister, I took the view that we need to make up for market failure. If broadband is left to the market, most people aren't going to get access," Davies told ZDNet UK News. "I'm not blaming the companies for this -- they're dependent on the market too. The role of the public sector is to make up for that."

This commitment has already resulted in two projects that both use 802.11b to provide wireless broadband. The Arwain Project currently covers Cardiff and the surrounding rural areas, while the eFro Broadband Wireless Project -- funded with DTI money -- provides high-speed Internet access in North Wales.

These two projects show how wireless can be used to increase broadband coverage -- a key issue for the whole UK.

According to Davies, the secret to successes such as these is government leadership, and an understanding how broadband can bring widespread benefits.

"The situation today is like it was in the 19th century with electricity. Most people just saw electricity as a way of lighting homes, and very few people saw its potential. We're at the very start of seeing just what we can do with broadband," explained Davies.

"You do need political leadership," Davies insisted. "I was able to see that broadband is absolutely vital to the transformation of the Welsh economy, and this has helped to put Wales on the map," he added.

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