Today saw the launch of Connecting Cambridgeshire’s Digital Connectivity Strategy at the science park in Cambridge. The strategy aims to build on current and previous programmes, to ‘target a significant increase in the full fibre footprint across the area, improvements in voice and data mobile coverage (2G and 4G), better public access Wifi and trials of 5G (next generation mobile)’.
The event was unfortunately dogged by late (or non-) appearances, particularly from Government, resulting from transport delays. A shame, as Government is key to making this work.
After welcomes from Connecting Cambridgeshire’s Noelle Godfrey and the Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, we heard from David Cleevely CBE, Vice-Chair of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Economic Review. Digital is ‘alongside fire and the wheel’ in terms of its importance, and needs weight behind it to make it happen, he said. We also need a strategy to address the downsides, such as the ‘hollowing out’ of our high streets by the increase in online shopping. We need equal access to opportunity and growth, in the Fens as well as in Cambridge, to overcome the ‘digital divide’. Demand is also important – doubling the demand for connectivity halves the cost of supplying it.
Gareth Elliott from Mobile UK was next up, pointing out the benefits of mobile connectivity and noting that 95 per cent of the population had at least one mobile phone. Barriers to further extension of mobile infrastructure (masts, basically) in the UK included political leadership, lack of suitable sites, strategic planning, consistency of planning, and under-resourced planning departments. Opportunities included access to public assets, landlord relationships, updated and refreshed Local Plans, guidance and best practice, digital champions, planning reform, and investment and partnership.
Rob Hamlin from CityFibre introduced the 51 city projects the company was currently planning, and alluded to the widening gap between increasing demand and the capacity of current infrastructure. A graph showed how under-invested the UK is for fibre compared with other OECD countries. Peterborough will be one of the first seven cities to benefit from the company’s strategic FTTP (fibre to the premises) partnership with Vodafone.
Trevor Linney from BT Openreach talked about the Fibre First programme, plans to get as much capacity as possible out of existing infrastructure, the civil engineering challenges (and opportunities including ‘quantum gravity sensors’!), the potential of robotics, and their collaboration with Huawei and the University of Cambridge.
After breakfast (!), we heard from Ian Adkins of Analysys Mason about their forthcoming study into pre-empting barriers to 5G connectivity, and from Mark Andrews from Enabling Digital Delivery. Vincent Berghout from Cambridge Fibre suggested that focused regional operators could outperform national players, and outlined his company’s work with ‘TrueFibre’ broadband, ethernet, ‘dark fibre’ and more. While businesses in urban areas were an attractive target segment, rural homes were expensive and difficult to reach – the final ‘one per cent’ would need community effort to enable them to be connected. He laid out the capital and operating costs of build, buy and lease options for infrastructure investment, and the six main challenges ahead: legislative ambiguity, the ‘8 digit challenge’ of securing investment of £10M and above, continued funding of ‘fake [copper] fibre’, wayleaves and other land ownership issues, construction obstructions, and open duct access in new property developments. The last speaker was Andrew Glover of Bridge Fibre who described their experience of dealing with local government.
The concluding questions and answers covered broadband in schools, the costs to companies including the financial risks associated with responsibility for reinstatement of roads and pavements, and the challenges of ensuring connectivity in rural areas – even though there is a potentially thriving rural economy, held back in many ways by lack of appropriate internet provision.
A useful event, with much to think about and feel positive about, but always that underlying feeling that the UK is now scrambling to catch up with something other countries have been investing in better and for longer – just at a time when the Government’s attention is distracted elsewhere and Government cash is even less likely to be available in the sums needed. And the concern that while the quick and easy investments in our cities storm ahead, rural residents and businesses get left behind because they’re not economic for private providers and there isn’t the serious Government cash to make it happen.