Analysing digital connectivity in the UK

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/ Supphachai Salaeman)

Ofcom’s annual plan for 2019/2020 has prioritised enhanced broadband and mobile throughout the country. The Government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR), published a year ago, mandated ‘full fibre broadband for all new build homes and a new priority to connect hard-to-reach rural areas’. As the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson entered office, broadband infrastructure ‘sprouting’ into every home in the UK was promised.

Many of the issues were discussed at the recent annual Connected Britain event in London, which attracted people from across the industry to debate and discuss the latest developments in the UK’s bid for world leading digital connectivity. So where is the UK in its ongoing digital connectivity journey and where does it need to go next?

Has the FTIR helped advance digital connectivity in the UK?

A key Connected Britain panel discussion around FTIR saw a number of speakers praise the review for encouraging a focus on full fibre rollout across the UK. They acknowledged that the FTIR vision is helping overall connectivity, in particular the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund, which has allocated £95 million of its £200 million budget to local authorities as of last year. This approach, whereby local authorities are encouraged to bid for projects highly tailored to the needs of their own areas, and to partner with private sector organisations where necessary, is delivering powerful results. In December, Ofcom reported that almost 1.8 million homes and businesses had access to full fibre connections – 6 per cent in total, and by May that had already risen by another 300,000 to cover 7 per cent of the country.

Nevertheless there are still questions over whether FTIR has gone far enough in setting a path towards full UK connectivity. Imagining that one single model can be rolled out seamlessly across the entire country is questionable. The UK’s vibrant broadband infrastructure is still too heavily oriented to its major commercial centres, and to stop full fibre networks following the same pattern, we need to be prepared to think creatively, and to break down that overall goal of 100 per cent full fibre connectivity nationwide into smaller projects focused on different areas. In practice, this might mean setting a single national infrastructure agenda, which then uses specific models in different areas, as well as sharing resources between public and private sector organisations more effectively.

An example of this would be an increased role for local authorities when it comes to delivering full-fibre connectivity in their communities.

This model is already becoming a reality, with West Sussex County Council securing more than £4 million in funding from the first wave of the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund.  The investment has been used to upgrade both the Council’s connectivity, and public sector partner organisations within the region. This has resulted in the council taking direct responsibility for infrastructure upgrades across the local area with a view to benefiting other public sector organisations and even businesses in the region who might otherwise be unable to harness the full benefits of commercially supplied broadband infrastructure.

Does 5G have the potential to be a connectivity gamechanger?

Organisations involved with 5G are, naturally, evangelical about the potential the technology has in delivering connectivity for the UK’s citizens, businesses and public services alike. From mobile network operators like EE, to network infrastructure providers like Huawei, the message of positivity and potential is clear.

The increased speed and capacity of 5G networks will normalise the consumption of rich data and multimedia content on the move, leading to enormous potential for organisations to engage with their customers and stakeholders in new ways. From businesses marketing their brands through ever more immersive and creative content, to healthcare organisations capturing massive amounts of rich data to inform technological innovation, the opportunities are vast.

Despite the overall potential, it is important to be far more measured about 5G’s current status. While it has massive potential for the future, short term benefits will be restricted to improved consumer usage – that is, delivering faster speeds on personal devices in urban areas where the early networks are being pioneered. Yes, this might help individual workers, but wider cases for 5G, such as it being a basis for industrial-level IoT communications, is yet to come. The infrastructure simply isn’t yet in place for 5G to deliver on the hype.  There is also a challenge that 5G investment may have an adverse impact on UK wide connectivity as it sucks in investment for 5G solutions leaving less investment and funding available to parts of the UK yet to benefit from 4G connectivity. 

Ultimately, while the UK has the potential to be a world leader in digital connectivity, there is still plenty of work to do. Full fibre networks must be rolled out further and faster, and this means embracing different models across the country. Local authorities must be further empowered to achieve localised, highly tailored approaches. 5G has a role to play, but elements of the technology and standards are still to mature before we see the real benefits.

With digital connectivity mentioned more at the highest political level, attention and expectation is certainly building which is no bad thing. Watch this space.

Dr Andrew Muir, CEO and co-founder, FarrPoint