The widespread rollout and adoption of full-fibre networks represents arguably the biggest and most crucial digital challenge for the UK to overcome. Earlier this year, the UK government declared its ambition to deliver Fibre-to-the-Premise (FTTP) connectivity to 15 million UK premises by 2025, with a target of full coverage by 2033. In spite of this, the UK stands at as little as 5% FFTP coverage, having grown by just 2% from last year. There is clearly still work to be done.
However, there is an unlikely hero that can be at the forefront, leading the UK towards a prosperous digital future: the Local Authority. Local authorities and city councils are responsible for the social wellbeing and economic development of the communities and regions that they represent and serve. They have the responsibility to encourage and sustain economic growth, foster social inclusion, create new jobs and attract investment, as well as improve education, health and other public services.
With digital technologies looking set to vastly transform these sectors, it’s imperative that local authorities have a properly thought-out digital strategy, a critical part of which is the underlying connective infrastructure that will support new digital services. But the implementation of the appropriate infrastructure is not without its roadblocks.
Incumbent suppliers have recently been called into question for their misleading claims about “fibre” connectivity. The truth is that “Superfast” and “Ultrafast” broadband still rely on much slower copper cabling to make up the “last mile” between the street cabinet and the home. These types of connections are typically only capable of achieving speeds of around 100Mbps. While those speeds may meet some requirements today, they fall very short of meeting the connectivity needs of tomorrow.
People and businesses in rural areas are the most isolated and underserved in terms of connectivity. Over the years, the incumbents’ excuses for not connecting individuals have ranged from the inadequate to the fanciful. People have been told that they cannot access faster connectivity because they live too far from the exchange; now some are now being told they live too close. The fact is, connectivity is essential to the continued development of even the most remote areas, and the delivery of connectivity is entirely achievable – it will just require effort and collaboration across the board.
Essentially, there needs to be a change in mindset. Connectivity must be thought of as an enabling infrastructure, and a part of the strategic development puzzle that can be assessed, planned and executed upon for the good of citizens. While the implementation and rollout of full fibre infrastructure is not a simple task, through careful planning and the consideration of the following nine steps, local authorities can be well on their way to shaping their “digital destinies”.
STAGE 1 – Digital Vision
The local authority should first take the time to map out its ambition for the region; how it wants to achieve continued socio-economic development in the region. What initiatives does it want to launch? What new opportunities does it want to create? This might include building affordable housing for residents or improving social housing, creating jobs within the region, and attracting inward investment for the development of tech hubs and enterprise zones.
This digital vision should also include what new public services it wants to put in place – such as publicly available Wi-Fi zones, IoT-based smart city features for traffic management or better energy efficiency. With this vision in place for the short, medium and long-term future, the local authority can then consider how to bring it to life – and what connectivity it needs to do so.
STAGE 2 – Existing duct assets
The next step is to identify the existing ducts and pipes that the local authority already has in place, which it can potentially use for rolling out a full-fibre network. These could be pipes for a local CCTV network, sewers or utility pipes. It’s imperative to make use of existing infrastructure – including unused “dark fibre” – as digging up the road to install new ducts is time consuming and can account for up to 80% of the installation total cost. Physical installation of fibre can be expensive, so think smart and minimize costs where possible.
STAGE 3 – Backhaul connectivity
Next, the local council or authority must align the ducts and pipes it has at its disposal with the nearest middle mile and core backhaul networks. Middle mile networks need to be connected to the UK’s nationwide fibre infrastructure. Any full fibre infrastructure planned by the authority must be able to connect to this nationwide network, in order to connect to the internet.
By bringing these assets together, the local authority can assess if it or its partners needs to dig new routes and install extra fibre to enable networks: and if so, where it needs to do so.
STAGE 4 – Local plan
This identifies the physical position of any major new development projects for the future – whether new residential housing: science parks: or regenerating an existing district. Previously, the local authority’s strategic focus has always been “above ground”. But rolling out a full fibre broadband network means it now needs to extend its strategy “below ground” as well, in a way that aligns with its plans on the surface.
Any planned Gigabit fibre network has to correspond with and connect the proposed new development sites. By aligning these locations with its digital masterplan, the local authority has a clear view of precisely which areas its new full fibre network needs to reach.
STAGE 5 – Roadworks, new roads, rail, and STAGE 6 – Energy projects
These two levels factor in existing and future physical infrastructure plans, be it the construction of new roads or repairs to existing roads: or alternatively, the construction of a distributed heating network or the presence of electricity pylons.
Construction or maintenance on a physical road as well as new build developments are an ideal opportunity to install Gigabit fibre at the same time. Doing so saves time and money on the fibre installation process – and is much cheaper than retrofitting fibre connectivity. In fact this year has seen the UK government call for full-fibre to be fitted as standard in all new build homes.
STAGE 7 – Map premises data
Mapping the premises of the area to be served by the planned new network means the local authority can identify key locations that need connectivity. These include residential areas (both private and social housing), business parks and enterprise zones, plus public locations like schools and hospitals (as well as the authority’s own offices). Plotting them is an important step in planning the scale and reach of the planned network, adding specificity and a target for delivery.
STAGE 8 – Major land ownership
Major land owners – whether inner city landlords or rural farmers – have a critical part to play in network rollout. Their private land might be the key to unlocking connected access to remote rural communities, new urban developments or under-served inner city sites. What’s essential is a collaborative approach to fibre ownership with a “dig once” strategy that benefits all infrastructure owners – whether public sector or private owner.
STAGE 9 – Map broadband availability
Mapping current broadband coverage and availability identifies, firstly, those areas that are under-served and in desperate need of connectivity, and those areas with an especially high level of demand, such as hospitals, university campuses, science parks and enterprise hubs.
By identifying these areas in advance, the local authority can anticipate demand and traffic levels and incorporate them into its planned network.
Connectivity should no longer be judged on speed, but rather on its capability as an enabler. Improved connectivity will create new jobs, improve operational efficiency and facilitate the adoption of new technologies such as 5G and the IoT. Regions across the UK will all benefit both social and economically from these developments, but it has to start with full fibre, and it is the UK’s local authorities that need to step up to drive this change. Through careful assessment and thorough planning, accompanied by collaboration by all involved, local authorities and city councils can be empowered to successfully deploy their own full-fibre networks.