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Swansea Bay City Region leaders endorse £55 million investment

A £55 million investment in digital connectivity has been approved by leaders in the Swansea Bay City Region.

It will allow quality digital services to be delivered over wireless or fixed line networks.

For businesses this may result in more opportunities and higher productivity.

It should accelerate innovation in how health and education services are delivered.

Householders, especially those in rural areas, should have faster access to all things digital.

Ultimately it’s about growing the economy, creating jobs and improving what’s referred to as digital inclusion.

The digital infrastructure project for Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire will now go for final approval to the Welsh and UK Governments.

Introducing the project at a meeting of the Swansea Bay City Region joint committee – comprising local public and private sector representatives – programme manager Gareth Jones said it was basically a five-year investment in connectivity.

Identifying and maximising uses for that connectivity, he said, was key.

“Infrastructure is great, but infrastructure on its own is completely useless,” he said. “It’s what you do with that infrastructure and that connectivity.”

Just under half the £55 million will be spent improving internet access for rural homes and businesses, while £20 million will improve connectivity further in the region’s main urban areas and development zones.

The remaining £9.5 million will help provide 5G wireless technology in certain locations which, it is hoped, will attract businesses.

The report before the joint committee said Wales had the biggest urban-rural divide for 4G coverage in the UK.

Carmarthenshire Council Leader Emlyn Dole said the rural ambition was stated clearly in the regional project.

He said the roll-out of “enabling technology” was “absolutely essential”.

Cllr Dole said that according to telecommunications billionaire and former chairman of the city region board, Sir Terry Matthews, the digital project was more important than any new road or building.

Mr Jones said the region still had 22,000 premises which could not access superfast broadband, and that faster full fibre broadband was limited.

Even Swansea, he said, was “not where it should be” in terms of its connectivity compared to other cities in the UK.

Mr Jones said he had received a lot of feedback about the project, and that there had been several conversations with Welsh and UK Government officials who had given a “significant steer in the business case”.

Chris Foxall, interim chairman of the city deal economic strategy board, which acts as the voice of the private sector, said the challenge had been to make the project more ambitious.

“We need to articulate what the opportunities are,” he said.

“We are certainly committed to steer this forward, and make introductions to companies and investors where necessary.”

The Welsh and UK Governments will be asked for £25 million of the £55 million proposition, with the rest coming from the private sector and regional public sector bodies.

City deal leaders are forecasting it could generate £318 million over 15 years.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Dole said: “The importance of world-class digital connectivity can’t be overstated.

“It’s fast-becoming the fourth utility, which underpins so much of daily life nowadays – from contact with family and friends to controlling our homes and supporting businesses in all sectors to drive productivity and enable innovation.

“The quality of digital infrastructure in South West Wales is currently lagging behind other parts of the UK though, so this programme will help close that gap by acting as a springboard for a super-connected city region with equality of access to broadband throughout our rural communities.”

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