AS ONE of the largest agricultural shows in Europe, The Royal Welsh Show should have been welcoming tens of thousands of visitors to the showground in Llanelwedd this week. Sadly, like many other major events, it’s been cancelled for a second year running due to the pandemic.

But the virtual show will give us a chance to discuss one of the big issues facing rural communities: accessing fast broadband and mobile connectivity. The pandemic has forced us all to do more things online, whether that’s a video call with friends and family or work, or booking an online medical appointment. As this shift online continues, it’s important no one is left behind. That includes rural communities and sectors.

Ofcom’s latest research shows that huge progress has been made with rural broadband and mobile connectivity in Wales in the last decade. Following investment from internet providers – alongside additional support schemes from government – superfast broadband is now available to 94 per cent of premises in Wales. This is double the level available in 2013 (48 per cent).

For mobile, 4G coverage in rural parts of Wales is now at record levels thanks to a big boost in the number of new masts and upgrades in recent years. EE, part of BT Group, has switched on more than 1,000 4G sites across Wales since 2012, bringing service to areas which had no mobile coverage before. It’s now the mobile network with the most extensive 4G coverage in Wales, reaching 83% of the geographic landmass.

But there is more work to be done. A small number of premises in Wales still can’t access a decent fixed broadband service or get good 4G coverage indoors, with almost all of these in rural areas. The topography and population distribution in Wales means the cost of constructing communications networks is significantly higher than the UK average. There are, however, two big recent developments that will see further improvements in rural connectivity in Wales over the next five to 10 years.

Firstly, the recent ruling by the regulator Ofcom on the future pricing of fibre, has given clarity for network providers to crack on and roll out full fibre broadband to all premises in the next decade. As a result, BT Group has confirmed it will invest at least £12bn for Openreach to roll out fast, full-fibre broadband to 25m premises in the UK, including in remote rural areas, by the end of 2026. Alongside further government support to connect very remote premises, it will result in a major boost to fast rural broadband in Wales.

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Secondly, rural Wales will see further big improvements to 4G coverage as a result of the Shared Rural Network, agreed last year. The agreement between all of the main mobile operators will extend 4G coverage to 95% of Wales’ geographic area by 2025, no matter which network customers use. Our recent agreement with OneWeb – exploring ways in which satellite technology can deliver improved connectivity in rural areas – may also offer new possibilities.

While the current priority is making sure rural connectivity keeps up with urban areas, it’s important also to discuss how rural communities can exploit this connectivity in the future. The next few years will see huge developments in areas like self-driving vehicles and artificial intelligence, all of which rely on fast, reliable connectivity.

A lot of innovative rural solutions are already being trialled and developed here in Wales. Coleg Glynllifon, for example, has done fantastic work looking at how farmers can remotely track and manage its stock using connected sensors, helping to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

This tech has the potential to help rural economies grow and encourage young people to stay in these areas.

We have an EE 5G mast at the Royal Welsh Showground to support demonstrations of new technology and we were pleased to use this to showcase a 5G-connected driverless pod at the last show, in 2019. I’m itching to get back to help demonstrate the latest innovations in the field.

In the tech world, there’s a lot of talk about super-connected ‘smart cities’. But let’s not forget about our rural areas, and make sure the conversation is as much about ‘smart rural’.

Nick Speed is BT Group director in Wales.

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