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Removing the barriers to improving connectivity

Written by Robert Franks, MD of WM5G

Over the last two decades, access to fast, reliable telecoms networks has evolved from being a nice to have to a critical piece of 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 in importance following the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen a significant shift towards home-based and hybrid work patterns, meaning 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 but 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 taken 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.

While these changes improved the time taken to deploy mobile networks, challenges remain when it comes to cabled networks, such as broadband.

Even in urban settings, much of the cost of deploying telecoms networks lies in the cost of civil works. Installing new networks requires access to buildings, roads and so on, all of which needs proper co-ordination and comes at 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 deemed to be financially viable or not.

Adopting ‘dig once’ policies, which encourage stakeholders with mutual interests in key sites to  co-ordinate efforts to install or maintain key infrastructure  at the same time, is one area offering real potential. For example, if telecoms companies are due to carry out planned maintenance work, they could be required to notify other contractors with an interest in that site so those works can be carried out at the same time. This approach reduces risks to public safety, eases traffic disruption and can lower costs by as much as 33%.

When new buildings are being planned, connectivity also needs to be included from the off. Installing the telecommunications infrastructure at 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 5G rollout and to test and prove transformational innovations using 5G. Much of this work was focussed on understanding the drivers behind the barriers and then identifying ways to overcome them.

To drive faster roll out 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 co-operation to standardising procedures and  reducing red tape that exists as a result of legacy planning, legal and regulatory requirements designed for a pre-internet age.

We have already shown what can be done in the West Midlands, which now has the best 5G coverage of any region, according to independent analysts Umlaut. Deregulation is likely to be a key part of replicating that success across the country. Investment Zones may well be a key driver of making this happen. Whatever the catalyst, the time for action is now.