Removing the barriers to improving connectivity has never been more important – here’s why
Over the last two decades, access to fast, reliable telecoms networks has evolved from nice to critical national infrastructure. Whether you are streaming high-definition films, gaming with players on the other side of the world, supporting smart manufacturing or simply trying to access public services, the need for speed when it comes to connectivity has never been greater.
With the digital revolution creating huge opportunities for our manufacturing, health and transport industries, it is clear we need to ensure the connectivity is in place to support digital services across the country. This has only gained importance following the Covid-19 pandemic, which has significantly shifted towards home-based and hybrid work patterns. It is now essential to have great connectivity not only in our commercial and office environments but also in our residential areas.
So what are the barriers standing in the way of improving connectivity?
The challenges associated with our country’s dated telecoms infrastructure and lack of access to fibre broadband in rural areas are well known. Still, other technical barriers also stand in the way: from limited access to mobile spectrum to low stocks of certain equipment, such as antennae. Through our work as part of the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS’s) 5G Testbeds and Trials programmes, we also noted a range of structural and regulatory barriers slowing the adoption of 5G; from identifying the owners of assets that could be used to host network equipment – such as rooftops, buildings and street furniture – to a lack of standardised legal agreements and valuation frameworks.
Tackling this with the local authorities that make up the West Midlands Combined Authority region, we developed a series of solutions that led to a six-month reduction in the average time to deploy 5G networks. These included mapping local assets suitable for hosting network infrastructure, standardising legal agreements and valuations, automating elements of acquisition processes, and providing independent consultancy to improve planning success.
Challenges remain regarding cabled networks
While these changes improved the time to deploy mobile networks, challenges remain regarding cabled networks, such as broadband.
Even in urban settings, much of the cost of deploying telecom networks lies in the cost of civil works. Installing new networks requires access to buildings, roads and so on, all of which need proper coordination and come at a cost, both in terms of delivering the work itself and lost productivity or downtime for those impacted by the works.
Crucially, this cost of construction – as opposed to the cost of the technology itself – often makes the difference between whether a project is financially viable.
Adopting ‘dig once’ policies encourage coordination
Adopting ‘dig once’ policies, which encourage stakeholders with mutual interests in key sites to coordinate efforts to install or maintain key infrastructure simultaneously, is one area offering real potential. For example, suppose telecom companies are due to carry out planned maintenance work. In that case, they could be required to notify other contractors interested in that site so those works can be carried out simultaneously. This approach reduces risks to public safety, eases traffic disruption and can lower costs by as much as 33%.
When new buildings are planned, connectivity must also be included from the off. Installing the telecommunications infrastructure at the build stage costs considerably less than retrofitting, making the marginal cost of supporting digital transformation far lower for companies. This may require changes to planning rules that can otherwise add delays and significant costs to the process.
When WM5G was established in 2019, our mission was to accelerate the 5G rollout and to test and prove transformational innovations using 5G. Much of this work was focused on understanding the drivers behind the barriers and then identifying ways to overcome them.
Improving connectivity requires a paradigm shift
To drive the faster rollout across the country, it is clear that we need a paradigm shift in our thinking and willingness to explore new commercial models and ways of working with different stakeholders. The focus needs to be on finding new, mutually-beneficial ways to make things happen: from improving communications and cooperation to standardising procedures and reducing red tape resulting from legacy planning, legal and regulatory requirements designed for a pre-internet age.
According to independent analysts Umlaut, we have already shown what can be done in the West Midlands, which now has the best 5G coverage of any region. Deregulation will likely be a key part of replicating that success across the country. Investment Zones may well be a key driver in making this happen. Whatever the catalyst, the time for action is now.
Written by Robert Franks, MD of WM5G