With £1bn for digital infrastructure to come – it needs to be spent wisely
The telecoms landscape in the UK is undergoing its most radical shake-up for years. In the recent Autumn Statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a boost to the UK’s digital connectivity with the promise of a £1 billion windfall. £400 million of this will be dedicated to further development of superfast fibre broadband connections through a Digital Investment Fund. £740 million will be dedicated to the development of 5G. The objective is to turbocharge the UK’s infrastructure, to improve productivity, to position us at the forefront of the global digital economy, and to help the UK reach its maximum potential.
The investment will also help us cope with the huge pressures placed on our networks by our increasing device usage and resulting data consumption. Figures from the ONS found that the Internet was used either daily or almost daily by 82% of adults in Britain in 2016, with 70% of us accessing the Internet using a mobile or smartphone. If these figures continue to increase exponentially, our infrastructure is going to be creaking at the seams.
The £1 billion pledge has even more significance now that telecoms watchdog Ofcom has asked BT to legally separate itself from Openreach. The move, says Ofcom, is ‘in the interest of all providers’, and is another strategic move to help improve broadband and telephone services across the UK by stimulating competition and increasing consumer choice.
The promise of the chancellor’s investment, though, has been met with cynicism from some critics, who suggest that the UK shouldn’t run before it can walk: the government needs to focus on improving its existing broadband and mobile coverage before trialling 5G. It’s an interesting point: whilst I welcome investment into our digital economy, figures shared by the British Infrastructure Group – a group of MPs – reveal that 17 million of us have insufficient mobile phone coverage at home, and there are 525 reported mobile blackspots across the UK.
The report also found that more than 60% of mobile users experienced ‘patchy’ signal quality, and revealed a postcode lottery when it comes to 4G signals, with only 46% of the population in the South West having access to 4G. Even in London which has the best 4G coverage in the UK according to OpenSignal’s State of Mobile Networks, speeds are slower than elsewhere. In fact, around 35 per cent of the UK population cannot access 3G let alone 4G.
Earlier in the year, the move to abandon a £1.5 million plan to put up 600 masts after reaching only 75 sites came under fire, particularly from rural communities. The chancellor’s promise to invest in the UK’s digital future is a step in the right direction and will address this investment shortfall. But if the latest pledge is to achieve its objective and enable the UK to reach its potential, it requires meticulous planning based on systematic, precise data.
Geospatial data enables mobile firms to minimise risk. It is fueling new analytics, redefining processes and disrupting the customer experience. Pitney Bowes location intelligence software, for example, is used by 40 of the top 50 wireless telecommunications carriers worldwide to assess strategic performance; to plan network expansion; and to provide customer care teams with accurate, up-to-date information on maintenance. Telecoms carriers use it to perform terrain data analysis and visualisation; to access, visualise and analyse grid-based network coverage data to take network deployments and service quality to the highest level; to drive capacity planning and service optimisation; to pinpoint locations for cell towers, small cells and Wi-Fi; and to identify low-strength areas and ’dead zones’ with insight into real-time network performance.
At Pitney Bowes, we talk a lot about the balance of physical and digital, and how one drives the other. For telecoms firms using location intelligence, digital information improves the physical infrastructure management. And a better physical infrastructure means faster data sharing, free from geographic restrictions. Ultimately, this is what we’re aiming for. And access to precise, accurate location intelligence could just be the critical success factor the UK needs to achieve universal, high-performance network coverage.