The Welsh Media II: The Technical Bit

(Title Image: © Copyright Mick Lobb and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence BY-SA-2.0)

Having given an overview of the media in Wales and some of the key issues, the next job is to set out precisely how information and entertainment are delivered to us.

In Print

The production process for a newspaper or magazine is divided into four broad stages: newsgathering, editing (pre-press), printing (press) and distribution (post-press).

Newsgathering will be covered in future articles (Part IV, Part V), so I’m just going to focus on the technical side of things for now.

By and large, the first two stages – newsgathering and editing – are done at a central location (this includes updating websites, where applicable). Examples of this include Media Wales’ office in central Cardiff or the Daily Post’s office in Colwyn Bay. The editing process is now far more technologically sophisticated than it has been in the past.

Once an edition or copy is finalised, it then goes to the printers. This is usually done wholesale on a commercial basis, so very few newspapers or magazines have printing facilities on their premises.

In terms of newspapers, Reach/Trinity Mirror has six printing facilities – five in England, one in Scotland. Media Wales (Reach’s subsidiary in Wales) used to have a printing centre in Cardiff, but that closed in 2016 and now all copies of the Western Mail, Daily Post and Reach’s regional titles are printed in Birmingham and Watford. Newsquest (which owns several Welsh titles) has a printing facility based at Mold in Flintshire.

There are many smaller print-publishers in Wales focused mainly on literature, such as Y Lolfa, Gomer Press and University of Wales Press.

The biggest wholesale distributor of newspapers and magazines is WH Smith (Smiths News), which has a 55% market share in the UK. The second biggest wholesale distributor is Menzies Distribution. Smiths News has a warehouse in Newport, while Menzies has a warehouse in Swansea – they’re the only two sizable wholesale distribution centres in Wales as far as I can tell.

On the Air

Wales has eight transmitter groups for radio and television, owned and operated by Winchester-based Arqiva:

Each main transmitter has a network of smaller relay transmitters that boost signals towards individual receivers in homes, cars or elsewhere.

It’s not a particularly neat picture in Wales largely due to topography. Transmitters have to be “in line of sight” of their relays, meaning if you’re in a sheltered valley facing “the wrong way” – like Blaenau Ffestiniog – it’s easier to receive a signal from a relay of the Blaenplwyf transmitter near Aberystwyth than a relay from the Llanddona transmitter on Anglesey, even though Llanddona is half the distance away.

You can also pick up signals from transmitters serving bordering regional broadcasters – in particular, the Moel-y-Parc and Winter Hill transmitters on either side of the Anglo-Welsh border in the north-east.

There are two main signal transmission types when it comes to radio and television:

  • Analogue signals are broadcast as continuous but subtly varying “waves” which are brought together on a device like a radio. It’s cheap, good for broadcasting over short distances, but prone to outside interference. It’s also limited in terms of picture and sound quality (though FM radio stations can be just as good, if not better, than digital stations).
  • Digital signals are broadcast as a single stream of data rather than varying waves and are decoded at point of receipt – for example, via a digital radio or TV set-top box. They enable more information to be carried on a single signal (meaning more space for stations) and improve the quality of those signals (including high definition pictures). They also use less power. Despite these advantages, they’re more prone to certain types of interference and it’s harder to pick up a “good signal”.

As of 2010, all television signals in Wales are digital following a digital terrestrial switchover process which was completed across the UK in 2012. Digital radio services are broadcast alongside and in addition to anologue AM and FM services.

A digital switchover for radio is being actively considered. In evidence to the Senedd’s Culture Committee as part of their inquiry into radio, the thresholds to trigger a digital radio switchover were said to be when 50% of all radio listening is via digital and digital radio can reach 90% of the population. Reportedly, the UK crossed the 50% listening threshold in 2018 but the Committee had concerns Wales was still too far behind in terms of infrastructure – particularly in rural areas.

Digital TV services are delivered via groups of frequencies called a multiplex (which can be region-specific), while digital radio is delivered using a Very High Frequency (VHF) via their own local multiplexes.

There are three public service TV multiplexes (BBC A, BBC B and D3&4) which carry BBC, ITV, S4C, Channel 4 and Channel 5 services. Alongside these, there are five commercial multiplexes which deliver UKTV and other free-to-air digital services, including radio stations available through Freeview. Satellite and cable TV services are delivered separately – though there’ll be more on that in later articles (Part VII).

Digital radio (DAB) services in Wales are delivered via seven blocks, with a further seven earmarked to be used for small-scale DAB trials but are currently not in use. There are five local multiplexes (South East Wales, Swansea & South West Wales, Mid & West Wales, North East Wales & West Cheshire and North West Wales) carrying Welsh commercial and public service radio stations.

Through Cables

 

(Pic: Vale of Glamorgan Council)

According to Ofcom (pdf – p9) in 2018, 98.5% of premises in Wales had access to broadband internet speeds of at least 2 MBits/s – the minimum needed to stream a standard-definition video.  While only 36% have actually taken up superfast broadband (at least 30Mbits/s), access to such services is at around 93-95%. 75% of Welsh households had a fixed internet access, which was below the UK average (80%).

As fixed-line broadband is delivered via telephone wires, the responsibility for upkeep and maintenance falls upon BT’s Openreach subsidiary, paid for via line rental.

While responsibility for telecommunications infrastructure and the internet are non-devolved, the Superfast Cymru scheme – a £425million joint programme between the Welsh Government and Openreach, which ended in February 2018 – enabled around 733,000 additional premises in Wales to access superfast broadband speeds. There have been complaints that the UK Government hasn’t invested enough of its own money in improving internet connectivity in Wales seeing as they’re ultimately responsible.

A second phase of the programme was announced by the Welsh Government in 2018 to reach the final 88,000 (5%) or so premises which are still unable to receive reliable broadband. The first contract was awarded in January 2019 to Openreach (again) despite criticisms over how they handled Superfast Cymru.

The main problem with the final 5% is usually down to distance from an exchange. The village of Michaelston y Ferw, near Newport, resorted to connecting themselves to superfast broadband by digging their own trench.

While governments and the likes of BT can help with infrastructure, ultimately it’s down to individual households and businesses to take up broadband or superfast broadband. ISPs which offer superfast broadband include BT, Sky, Plusnet, EE, Spectrum Internet (a Welsh-based ISP) and Virgin – though some, like Virgin Media, offer ultrafast connections (usually 300+ MBits/s) which may be of limited availability in Wales.

On Mobile

According to the Ofcom report (pdf – p11), 83% of smartphone users in Wales have access to 4G (high-speed wireless internet) – in line with the UK average – though only 78% of Welsh people have a smartphone, compared to 83% in England.

In some cases, a wireless connection might be the best way to deliver internet access – particularly in rural areas – though it tends to be more expensive than fixed-wire broadband. Carmarthen-based Bluewave and Newcastle Emlyn-based Dyfed Superfast are two examples of Welsh-based companies which offer wireless broadband.

According to a Senedd Economy & Infrastructure Committee inquiry, indoor mobile signals only reach 67% of Wales, with a large part of the county in a “not spot” for 4G. There were also said to be connectivity issues with 4G along main Welsh roads – the north-west of Wales is particularly poorly-served.

In response to the inquiry, the Welsh Government has relaxed planning rules for phone masts so masts of up to 25m in height (the previous limit was 15m) won’t have to go through the full planning permission process. The Committee did, however, recommend that masts of up to 50m be allowed in order to overcome Wales’ topography.

By and large, mobile internet and mobile signals are delivered by the main mobile operators (EE, Vodafone, O2 etc.), who either provide their own mobile masts or share coverage.

Ofcom and the UK Government have started the auction process for the 700MHz band (pdf – p15) – which will make use of digital TV frequencies to improve mobile connectivity in rural areas – and one of the obligations set down is for 83% of Wales to be covered within 4 years of the licence being granted (which would be 2025).

The 700MHz frequency is also expected to play a role in the eventual roll-out of 5G technology, which will connect household appliances to “smart networks” and provide data speeds of up to 500MBits/s.

Five technical challenges facing Wales

Online-only services and digital inclusion – While the world and the media increasingly move online, there are still groups within Wales who are effectively cut off from the internet. It could be because they can’t afford to use it and the services they previously relied on (i.e. library computers) have been cut due to austerity, or – particularly amongst the elderly – the technology might be completely alien to them. When you consider just how many official services are being digitised, internet connectivity it’s no longer a matter of choice but can directly impact people’s lives – online-only management of Universal Credit, for example.

Internet and mobile “not spots” – This has already been well-covered earlier in the article as well as on Senedd Home concerning various committee inquiries and ministerial statements, but there remain significant barriers in the way of Wales becoming wholly digital. Whether it’s topographical issues or cost-effectiveness of providing high-speed internet and mobile connectivity in rural Wales, it may require imaginative solutions to overcome it.

Preparing for 5G – Wales will inevitably be slow to uptake 5G as we lagged behind on superfast broadband and continue to do so with regard 4G mobile coverage. It might be tempting to skip over the expansion of 4G and move straight to 5G, but it might not be necessary as of yet. It’s not something that can be done overnight either as many of the levers remain with the UK Government and Ofcom.

Digital radio (DAB) switchover – I’m going to be mentioning this a few times, so forgive me for repetition. When is it going to happen and will Wales be left behind? In fairness, Wales was the first of the UK’s nations to go 100% digital for television, but with radio there are likely to be further challenges similar to those of mobile coverage. As mentioned earlier, the Senedd’s Culture Committee was told that one of the thresholds to trigger a DAB switchover was reached in 2018 and there’s a risk that the UK Government will press ahead with this before Wales is properly ready. DAB presents opportunities as well as challenges, namely whether it would lead to a homogenisation of radio output across the UK (and the impact that would have on commercial advertising and local news content, for example), whether it would make it more difficult for local and community radio to reach audiences cost-effectively and the impact on rural Wales which might not have appropriate signal coverage.

Technical feasibility of Welsh opt-outs and Welsh opt-outs in the age of “on-demand” – The Culture Committee have been told that radio opt-outs for Wales on the main BBC stations are, at present, “technically infeasible”. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but I’m sceptical.

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