A £55m project to help deliver state-of-the-art digital connectivity in the Swansea Bay City area is starting to move forward, executives said. It is one of nine draft municipal agreements for the area – and was described as a ‘golden thread’ running through them all at a meeting of the Swansea Bay City Area Joint Committee.
The Digital Infrastructure Program, as the project is known, has three key objectives: widespread fiber broadband coverage in urban and growing areas, the expansion of connectivity in underserved rural areas, and the deployment of as much 5G wireless technology as possible.
Although it may sound technical, the premise is that good digital connectivity helps a region gain a competitive advantage, drive innovation, and drive economic growth. And the Swansea Bay City area, according to a report presented to the Joint Committee, has suffered from a lack of commercial investment in this regard. The region covers Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire.
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Gareth Jones, the project manager, said the aim is to sustain connectivity in the region for at least the next 25 to 30 years. He added: “Our project, in all honesty, is not enough to achieve this on its own. We need to work with the UG Government, the Welsh Government, our local authorities, the wider public sector and of course , the most important private sector and industry.”
Mr Jones said poor digital coverage in rural areas was becoming more prominent as fiber broadband builders penetrated further into urban areas. But he said there were now six fiber builders in the region – three specializing in rural areas – compared to just two a few years ago.
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Cllr Steve Hunt, the leader of Neath Port Talbot Council, said he was one of those underserved customers and that some people and businesses in the five valleys of the county were struggling with the problem. He asked for assurances that Mr Jones and his colleagues would continue to press the central government for a better provision.
One element of the project will see an investment of over £12m in super-fast digital infrastructure for public sector buildings in the region.
Mr Jones said it would create the basis for a “fiber spine” in the area. He added: “Probably, more importantly, it will spur significant private sector investment in building additional fiber.”
He said he and his colleagues were working out which public sector buildings would benefit from the £12m outlay.
The four participating councils will recruit two staff members to help move the project forward, liaising with businesses and the public. This will include providing Public Health England’s latest guidance and advice on 5G – the next iteration of the wireless network.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and information out there,” said Cllr Rob Stewart, the head of Swansea Council.
The project aims to establish 5G networks, which could lead to new and better business applications.
Mr Jones said: “The excitement behind 5G is not about mobile phones. It’s the ultra-fast wireless offshore connectivity for your wind farms. It’s about private high-speed connectivity on a dairy farm. This is the network that will control autonomous vehicles in the future.
Cllr Stewart said: “The digital program is a golden thread that runs through us and helps us achieve even more on our other projects.”
Rising construction costs remain a real concern for the £1.24billion city contract for the Swansea Bay City area, the program manager said.
The agreement with the city includes nine projects spanning energy, advanced manufacturing, and health and wellness, among others. It has and will result in new buildings, including a £60m marine energy facility at Pembroke Dock.
Jonathan Burnes, the city’s agreement manager, told a committee meeting that construction costs were a high risk, with the Pembroke Dock marine project being one example. Monthly construction cost impact assessments were being carried out, he said, and additional funds were being requested from the Welsh European Funding Office as more money was now needed to complete the projects.
Other ‘red’ risks were a shortage of the expected private sector contribution of over £625million over the 15-year City Agreement, and how future flood mapping and associated requirements could affect projects.
Dr Burnes said 13% of the £1.24billion had now been spent, with 500 jobs – including construction jobs – created.
Cllr Darren Price, the leader of Carmarthenshire Council, said those benefits were what mattered. He said the public “frankly, doesn’t care” about governance decisions and reports. What they wanted to know, he said, was what was being provided in terms of jobs, investment and gross value added – or productivity.
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