News

Connectivity and Levelling Up

THE GOVERNMENT’S anticipated White Paper on reducing regional economic inequalities in the UK has arrived with a reassuring 320-page thud. “Levelling up” – as both the programme and half the government department charged with delivering it have since been named – is now officially the central objective and the moral mission of this administration.

An important commitment demands a detailed plan of action, and the White Paper sets out twelve missions be achieved by 2030, including:

  • A globally competitive city, rising employment and productivity in every region;
  • A UK Shared Prosperity Fund in place of EU Structural Funding, with spending decisions devolved;
  • R&D investment outside the Greater South East to by 40% higher;
  • Public transport in every region to be significantly closer to the standards of London;
  • Higher standards of literacy and numeracy for primary school leavers;
  • More high-quality skills training for every region;
  • Existing gaps in life expectancy between regions to have been closed;
  • Increased pride and satisfaction in people’s local areas;
  • More home owners, fewer substandard rental properties;
  • Homicide, serious crime and neighbourhood crime to be down everywhere;
  • London-style Mayors for every region that wants one.

In among these pledges, the government is also committing that “By 2030, the UK will have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for the majority of the population”.

Project Gigabit, the DCMS programmes designed to deliver faster fixed connectivity, is well underway, but the White Paper finally sets the target for fixed connectivity, equating it to availability in 85% of premises by 2025 and “as close as possible to 100%” by 2030. With commercial provision expected to account for 80% coverage, the government’s commitment could easily be dismissed as timid. But this would be to misunderstand the huge challenges of connecting those parts of the country where commercial investment is unlikely to flow and where existing copper lines and infrastructure are not a part of the solution.

On 4G, the government will press ahead with its target of achieving 95% coverage by 2025 through the Shared Rural Network Programme. On 5G, the commitment is less clear, with a pledge only that “a majority” of the population will have a 5G signal by 2027.

But it is perhaps what the White Paper does not say about the potential for greater regional economic equality through improved connectivity that is most interesting. The White Paper notes that better connectivity helps the development of high-value sectoral clusters. It also declares that “high quality digital infrastructure can deepen local labour markets through remote working, making it more attractive for both workers and companies to locate regionally”.  But this is one of just three mentions of remote working in the entire White Paper – and the other two are in reference to the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns.

The future of work is, perhaps understandably, a topic that the authors of the White Paper had no intentions of trying to solve. It is also true that, with pandemic restrictions falling away and more people return to daily commuting and office working, the current situation is perhaps too fluid for a document that is concerned with setting clear measures of success for the next eight years. More ominously, advocates of the pre-pandemic status quo have a great deal invested in a UK where most people travel to work that takes place in its own dedicated physical space and where city centres are geared towards servicing this daily influx. With some national newspapers mounting what appears like a campaign to reverse the move toward remote working (a trend which long predates anti-COVID restrictions) it is perhaps understandable why the government chose to give such little emphasis to what may become a key driver of a more regionally economically equal Britain. The growth of remote working could do more – and do more quickly – to reverse the dominance of London and the South East than any amount of improvements in town centres, education standards and bus routes. Yet it is something we may not hear the government talking about at all.

New social housing in Wales must be ready for gigabit connections

The Welsh Development Quality Requirements 2021 – Creating Beautiful Homes and Places, is a document that sets out the minimum functional quality standards for new and rehabilitated affordable homes. It has been updated to include new provisions on broadband and home working, including:

  • Providing sufficient space for occupants to set up a home office in a suitable room to allow home working; and
  • being ready for gigabit-capable broadband connectivity – meaning FTTP or gigabit wireless technologies must be provided to every home. Where gigabit connectivity is not yet available, the physical infrastructure must be made available throughout the site and into the home, to enable future installation by ISPs without disruption.

The document can be read in full here.

BSG Report – Research on Very Hard to Reach Premises: technical and commercial analysis

Broadband Stakeholder Group has published primary research by leading consultancy Analysys Mason on the commercial and technical practicalities of providing broadband coverage to areas in the UK that are hardest to reach.

The report significantly adds to the evidence base currently available to ensure a cost-effective subsidy programme is achieved. It provides details of a wide range of broadband technologies, including fixed and wireless, terrestrial and non-terrestrial that could be deployed in the UK between 2021 and 2027. It also assesses the ability to deliver either 30Mbit/s or 300Mbit/s download speeds to improve connectivity in remote areas.  (more…)

Project Gigabit: Open Market Review request for information – first release of Phase 2

Building Digital UK has launched an Open Market Review (OMR) to identify potential areas for government intervention to support gigabit-capable broadband. The OMR Request for Information is to confirm where gigabit-capable broadband infrastructure currently exists or was planned to be built in the next 3 years across the geographical areas outlined below. (more…)

DCMS launches Fibre in Water open competition

The government has announced a three-year trial to target hard-to-reach homes using the UK water network. The project will also look to test solutions that reduce the amount of water lost every day due to leaks using the same fibre optic cables (fibre has already been deployed in water pipes in other countries, such as Spain). According to the government, about 20% of the total water put into the public supply is lost every day due to leaks and the water companies have committed to delivering a 50% reduction in leakage with the help of this project.

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Project Gigabit – summer update

The government has published a summer update on the Project Gigabit Delivery plan and procurement pipeline. It reveals that up to 1,850,000 additional premises across 26 counties in England will get access to gigabit-capable broadband. This brings the current total number of premises in scope for government-funded coverage to 2.2 million, with more still to be announced over the coming months across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The government expresses confidence in exceeding the gigabit coverage target (85% of UK premises) by 2025. (more…)

New licensing proposals to support satellite broadband sector

Ofcom has published proposals to change the way it licenses non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) systems, also known as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) based ultrafast broadband satellite constellations, such as British-registered OneWeb, which will connect people to the internet in hard-to-reach areas. The process will consist of new checks on potential interference between networks and publishing licence applications so that other interested parties have an opportunity to raise any interference or competition concerns. Under the proposed licence conditions, different networks will be required to co-operate with each other on technical matters to avoid the risk of disruption to their services. (more…)

Ofcom’s review of measures to protect people in debt or at risk of disconnection

According to Ofcom’s research, many people on low incomes are still struggling to pay their bills. Data collected shows that around two million households reported an affordability issue with broadband and/or smartphone services in the month before they were surveyed, or do not have internet at home partly due to cost. The 3.3 million households with the lowest incomes in the UK spend on average over 4% of their disposable income on fixed broadband, nearly four times more than the proportion of an average household. (more…)

Ofcom’s Spectrum Management Strategy for the 2020’s

Ofcom has published a statement on its spectrum strategy, identifying three areas of increased focus:

Supporting wireless innovation: Making it even easier for a broad range of users to access spectrum by making more spectrum available for innovation before its long-term future use is certain; working to support innovation in new wireless technologies; and expanding work to understand, assist and inform the broad range of organisations who may benefit from wireless technologies in the future. (more…)

Project Gigabit: Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Public Review

As part of Project Gigabit, Building Digital UK (BDUK) is consulting on a new procurement to extend the coverage of gigabit-capable broadband across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in South West England. BDUK is requesting information and supporting evidence on gigabit-capable broadband infrastructure within the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly intervention area and would like to hear from all relevant stakeholders in relation to the target intervention area found in the Request For Information document. (more…)

Update on Project Gigabit and the Shared Rural Network

Project Gigabit

The BDUK team at the DCMS has identified that 234,000 premises in Wales will be in scope of the Project Gigabit programme – meaning they won’t benefit from the commercial build and thus require public subsidy to go further. This includes rural towns and villages in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Gwynedd, the Isle of Anglesey, Pembrokeshire and Powys. The government will set out the timetable for the delivery of these connections once it has agreed on the procurement process with the Welsh Government. In addition, a further £24 million will fund the rollout of gigabit broadband in ten local authority areas in Northern Ireland. The Full Fibre Northern Ireland (FFNI) scheme will see 969 hospitals, GP surgeries, ambulance and fire stations, community and leisure centres, council offices and other public buildings connected to gigabit-capable networks. (more…)