By Daniel Hunter
Wales is catching up in the rollout of superfast broadband, new Ofcom research has revealed.
Ofcom's annual Communications Market Report shows that the number of premises covered by Next Generation Access (NGA) networks - used to provide superfast broadband services - has increased by 10 percentage points, year on year.
This brings the number of premises covered to 58%, compared to the UK average of 78%.
But the research also shows that, despite the increase in the availability of new broadband services, the proportion of adults in Wales who had signed up to a fixed or mobile broadband connection (71%) was 6 percentage points lower than the UK average.
The increase in availability of superfast broadband has been driven by the Welsh Government's Superfast Cymru project. According to the Welsh Government, by May 2014 the project had resulted in fibre broadband covering 156,000 premises, across 14 unitary areas. And some parts of rural Wales now have the fastest domestic broadband services in the UK, with speeds of up to 330Mbit/s.
The project aims to ensure that 96% of homes and businesses have access to superfast broadband by 2016.
Of the four UK nations, Wales has experienced the largest increase in DAB radio set ownership over the past year, with 42% of households now owning at least one set, a 15 percentage point increase. This brings Wales into line with the UK average.
A new DAB multiplex serving north-east Wales and west Cheshire began broadcasting in April 2013 and further DAB multiplex for mid and west Wales launched in August 2013.
These new multiplexes have brought improved DAB coverage and availability across Wales and there are now up to 47 digital radio services available. The north-west Wales multiplex, which is expected to launch in autumn 2014, will improve coverage and availability further.
For the first time, Ofcom's Communications Market Report studied small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Wales.
The research found that 81% of SMEs in Wales rate communications services as fundamental to their business. Just over three-quarters (76%) of SMEs in Wales are now online, and this is true across urban and rural areas, and businesses of different sizes.
Although the majority of SMEs in Wales are making use of online services and are satisfied with communications at an overall level, a quarter report having experienced poor mobile coverage and over a quarter report having experienced poor reliability of their internet connection.
Satisfaction levels with the reliability of mobile phone services, in terms of the quality of the signal or connection, the geographic availability of the service, and the ability to send/receive emails or access the internet, is lower in rural than urban areas. However, satisfaction with reliability is not significantly lower in Wales than in the UK as a whole.
Just under half (47%) of SMEs in Wales use the Welsh language in their business dealings. Some 42% of SMEs said that their communications provider communicates to them in Welsh and 15% of SMEs in Wales whose communications provider does not speak to them in Welsh would prefer them to do so.
Take-up of communications services and devices among those who can speak or write Welsh is also new to this year's Communications Market Report.
The report shows that, in general, Welsh speakers are less likely to have a tablet computer in their household (34% vs. 45% Wales average) and a lower proportion of Welsh speakers use a mobile phone to access the internet (39% vs. 52%).
Linked to this, take-up of smartphones is lower among Welsh speakers (42% compared to 57% across Wales). This is likely to be due to the older age profile of Welsh speakers, and the higher proportion living in rural areas.
Rhodri Williams, Ofcom's Director in Wales said: "For too long, Wales has lagged behind the UK for communications services. Our research shows that when it comes to the rollout of superfast broadband services, Wales is beginning to bridge the gap.
"Our research also highlights just how important communications services are to small and medium-sized companies and the Welsh economy in general. The findings in today's report will provide a benchmark for furthering our work in this area."
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