True digital levelling up is within reach for local authorities

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Ian Newbury from BT Wholesale argues that the success of UK local authorities is reliant on the services they underpin, which can be improved by the digital levelling up agenda

Services the local authority are responsible for include everything from roads and planning to community development, and now, the much-needed digital levelling up of the UK. A key focus of all the authorities is to ensure they capitalise on technological and economic opportunities to both improve the quality of life and avoid digital and social exclusion.

Increasingly, as a society, we are becoming more reliant on technology. Some research by Royal Docks revealed that 82% of jobs require digital skills and jobs with digital skills attracted a 29% increase in salary, on top of this the cost savings and efficiencies being offered by IoT and connected anywhere technologies, have the ability to transform a community. This digital levelling up means quality connectivity, both fixed line and mobile, is becoming of paramount importance.

These technologies will combine to underpin a digital infrastructure layer that will support new devices, applications, data, and skills so that councils can in turn support the public through enhanced services. Authorities will be able to capitalise on the technological advancements and introduce new schemes that add value to entire communities, fuelling economic growth and closing existing social and economic gaps.

The launch of the Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator

The government took a large step forward in its digital levelling up agenda by helping authorities in making this digital vision a reality with the launch of the Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator (DCIA). The pilot scheme provides local authorities and technology providers with access to up to £4 million of funding to develop tomorrow’s wireless communication networks, with a specific focus on exploring how public assets (publicly owned buildings and street furniture) can be used to support the development and deployment of mobile communications and small cells. This not only simplifies deployment and lowers cost, but it also helps reduce street furniture and protect the aesthetics of the environment.

This is a huge step forward in enabling the rollout of small cells, alongside fixed and macro deployments, and a connected Britain, argues Ian Newbury, MNO Business Development Director at BT Wholesale.

Meeting increased demand for digital services

The 5G promise has the potential to change how we interact with our local environment.

It is more than faster broadband on your handset. It’s high reliability, low latency and the ability to connect millions of devices in a small area. This means it can open up access to new technologies, whether that’s exciting technologies such as augmented reality, or the simple but practical smart sensors for bin capacity. This is why 29 of the 30 global cities surveyed for the Digital Cities Index 2022 have a strategy in place for the deployment of 5G technology, they understand its future importance in enabling connected communities and digital levelling up, and the dangers of being left behind.

The report also nods to some of the hurdles that exist to achieving this, particularly in deployment. “To be truly transformational in areas like autonomous transport, 5G needs to be ubiquitous and comprehensive, which will require greater private sector investment, new partnership models between telecommunications companies and an enabling regulatory environment.” Simply put, success in deploying 5G will require collaboration between all stakeholders.

But this isn’t just required for 5G, local authorities and MNO partners are faced with meeting the demands of communities seeking greater connectivity now. Whether catering for 4G or 5G, there’s an increase in demand for speed, reliability, and quality. Therefore, MNOs need to boost network performance in areas of high-capacity usage, as well as in areas of low coverage, so that low-latency connectivity is ubiquitous.

This is the time for small cells in the digital levelling up agenda

Traditionally MNOs have focused on Macro Cell deployments, which enable greater coverage per cell. This has served the market well for voice and for 3G and 4G where coverage was a key driver. However, with 5G’s focus on reliability, speed and IoT, the network needs both resilience and densification.

Small cells can achieve this, not only by providing inherent backup to the macro cell network and greater bandwidth in smaller, more focused areas but also with some of the technologies in 5G such as coordinated multipoint (CoMP) and enhanced interference coordination (eICIC) which can increase spectrum efficiency by over 60%, massively increasing the bandwidth without having to buy more spectrum.

Existing infrastructure is key to digital levelling up

Small cells aren’t a new technology, they were a strong part of the 3G and 4G story, however, mass deployment has never happened due to the cost and complexity of deploying, overly complex planning hurdles, expensive concession models and inconsistent practices between providers has meant the MNOs found alternatives to solving the problem, but these practices now have diminishing returns and will not solve the 5G challenge.

The good news is local authorities and MNOs have increased and, whilst we aren’t in a utopia there is a mutual aim to work together. For example, EE, in collaboration with other telecom providers and local authorities, has recently deployed over 500 small cells in a number of cities across the UK, including Leeds, London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Manchester.

With the majority of the small cells sited on council-owned street furniture, the deployments already allow users to enjoy download speeds of up to 300 Mbps in what were previously areas of poor or no coverage.

Cammy Day, Deputy Leader of Edinburgh Council and its Smart Cities lead, described this as “an innovative use of space – using the Council’s existing CCTV cameras to accelerate the rollout of high-density mobile coverage and close the digital divide in some of our most disadvantaged communities.”

Creating a utopia – ‘open access’

There are clear benefits to small cell deployments on existing infrastructure such as CCTV columns, lamp posts, etc. Not only does it lower the cost and time to deploy, but it also prevents the need for further infrastructure protecting aesthetics and lowering the carbon footprint.

But their overall rollout has been hindered by previous commercial models where a party will buy the rights to the infrastructure for a set period. The commercials usually include a large upfront payment, followed by a revenue share on every asset that goes live. This approach has created ‘land banking’ where a party needs to get an ROI on their investment which is usually uneconomical for the MNO, so sites are only taken where there is no alternative, this lowers the take up which in turn has led to some local authorities feeling that they don’t generate the expected revenue share.

Some local authorities – such as those in Leeds, Liverpool, and Glasgow – have taken steps to address these issues. They’ve adopted an ‘open access’ approach, whereby anybody can approach them to use the asset at a set price, this model ensures that the assets are not overly valued and therefore sterilised due to economics and that the local community can benefit equally regardless of what network they are on.

This simplifies the supply chain in which small cells can be deployed at speed with minimal disruption, driving benefits for everyday users, and improving digital inclusion and economic growth.

Closing the digital divide

Simplifying the supply chain for small cells provides huge benefits to everybody involved – the MNO, the local authority, and most importantly the local communities – our end customers.

Local authorities are increasingly understanding the need for ubiquitous quality connectivity to close the digital divide. There are a wealth of new technologies and services maturing that can empower communities and level them up across work, education, public services, and more.

But to achieve this, we need to step closer to a utopia whereby not only are the four MNOs working together more closely but local councils and partners across the supply chain are working together to unlock existing infrastructure and fuelling inclusive growth.

We’ve made great strides with the open access model, but success will be driven through a nationwide embrace of it, increased collaboration and alignment on the common aim – to create a truly connected society through a digital levelling up agenda.

Please Note: This is a Commercial Profile

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