In June, the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) published its key policy position on how to deliver digital connectivity across the country post Brexit. Nicola McCoy-Brown discusses the topic here
Connectivity has become fundamental for everyone and good internet access is now widely viewed as the ‘fourth utility’. Digital technology underpins almost every aspect of modern living across work, travel, leisure and health and digital infrastructure is now as important to our economy and society as traditional infrastructure and utility services.
However, most of the UK’s internet has been powered by copper wiring. It is no longer fit for purpose and hopelessly out of date for the requirements of the Third Industrial Revolution.
The deployment of telecoms networks and infrastructure is, therefore, essential to ensure that everything and everyone can connect – but access to the digital world does not happen uniformly. Over the last five years, close to £1.7 billion has been spent on reaching 95% of homes and businesses in the UK with superfast speeds of 24 Megabits per second (24Mbps). Yet the gap remains between the communities that have access to this technology and those that do not.
More work is required to close this digital divide. The step towards world-class connectivity for all, coupled with making it easier and cheaper to deploy mobile infrastructure, requires the fostering of next-generation Gigabit (1000Mbps+) capable full-fibre infrastructure.
ADEPT’s Digital Connectivity Working Group was established with the Local Government Association in 2018 to explore digital connectivity, focusing on: the number of new-build homes being built that are not fibre-enabled; the disparity in mobile coverage; and how to drive the deployment of world-class digital infrastructure.
As a result of this group, ADEPT published its policy position on Digital Connectivity in June 2019. The policy sets out the importance of having a full-fibre network, with 5G linked to this and contains seven asks of government, Ofcom and the industry. These include issues around coverage, quality, competition, new builds, delivery impact, local industrial strategies and inclusive connectivity.
Ultimately, ADEPT wants to see digital connectivity enshrined in local industrial strategies and local development plans so that it is prioritised in the same way as other utilities.
One critical area outlined in the policy position is around new builds and infrastructure capability. Whilst Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) coverage is improving, a natural time lag between various policy changes and their implementation exists.
Most of the major homebuilders have entered into partnerships with network operators to better facilitate the roll-out of full-fibre and slower hybrid fibre-based technologies. A 2016 EU directive, which was adopted into UK law, means all newly constructed buildings are equipped with an infrastructure capable of delivering high-speed broadband. However, it is still left up to the developers and Internet Service Providers to decide whether to deploy an actual working service. Although more new homes have superfast and/or full-fibre availability, we are still a long way from seeing united support for superfast in new build premises.
Recently, the government identified that approximately 10% of UK premises, largely in rural and remote areas, would be unlikely to receive gigabit-capable connections commercially by 2033. To address this, the Rural Gigabit Connectivity programme was launched, which uses an ‘Outside In’ approach to ensure rural areas are not disadvantaged. This approach targets the rural and remote areas first and should see the identified 10% of premises reached at the same time as the commercial roll-out happens across the UK.
The decision to tackle some of the hardest to reach places first is a significant shift in government policy and will be instrumental in delivering the ambitious plans for a nationwide full-fibre broadband network by 2033. In addition, the government has pledged full-fibre broadband coverage by 2025, which equates to moving the goalposts forward by eight years. Neither deadline, however, is backed by actual plans.
ADEPT’s policy position also calls on the sector to work together to deliver access to fast and reliable broadband and mobile coverage across the country, to unlock the economic benefits of digital technology. We know that collaboration is key to delivering digital connectivity – we need to ensure that dialogue is open, transparent, that information is robust and reliable and that we share it effectively.
ADEPT recognises there are unique challenges for local authorities too. When councils became involved in the technology industry, many local authorities were not equipped to respond effectively, with skills gaps in some areas. Although we now have a talented bank of people, moving into the mobile networking industry may present similar challenges.
ADEPT needs to be ambitious in its remit around digital connectivity. We have a unique opportunity, given our links to both government and private sector corporate partners. Local authorities have an integral role as influencers, purchasers and decision-makers where inclusivity and diversity need to be embedded in all the services we design and commission. When it comes to rolling-out full-fibre, this means removing barriers and creating an opportunity for all segments of the population. We need to challenge the definition of ‘value for money’ and instead target some of our remotest communities and those excluded due to the cost of delivery.
The UK is playing a serious game of catch up. Less than 10% of the nation currently has a full-fibre connection, which is minuscule when compared to Spain which has more than 33.3 million access points, covering more than 75% of the population. It is for this reason that ADEPT also wants to see more incentives, as well as requirements for mobile network operators (MNOs) to provide better, affordable services for rural areas. There must be more certainty and powers to ensure that coverage and compliance are assured by Ofcom. Only through these measures will we achieve world-class connectivity for all.
More information about ADEPT can be found on its website: (www.adeptnet.org.uk)
Digital Connectivity Policy Position – (www.adeptnet.org.uk/documents/digital-connectivity-policy-position)
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