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Tearing down the barriers to full digital connectivity

Millions of households rely on good connectivity for work, study or leisure. But how much has fast and consistent broadband connectivity spread across the UK?

With the growing number of people working from home, there is a commensurate requirement for a consistent broadband connectivity within households. However, all the indications are that the UK is not performing particularly well in this regard.

One factor that does blight performance is the disparity between broadband availability in different geographic areas. As a rule of thumb, rural regions have struggled with consistent connectivity more than urban areas have, and the cost of rolling out to rural areas will always be a challenge.

According to research from surveying firm Cluttons, only 38% of UK policy-makers think the UK’s roll-out of broadband connectivity has been successful, and an even smaller percentage of them believe the country is on track to meet its gigabit targets.

However, it is not always the case that towns are better connected. There is a disparity here too, with many urban residents also claiming connectivity issues, both with fixed line and mobile connections.

According to a survey from the UK parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, only 52% of British citizens believe their home broadband connections are fast and reliable enough to do what they want online. The situation is even gloomier when it comes to mobile communications – just 41% of respondents think their cellular connections are up to scratch when it comes to online connectivity.

Local authorities have a significant role to play in accelerating gigabit roll-out. It is therefore disappointing to see that, according to Cluttons’ research, less than half of councillors report that their local authority has a digital strategy in place.

Fibre initiative

To try to deal with this shortfall in effective connectivity, operators have been stepping up their efforts to improve matters by laying more fibre.

And they have been given plenty of encouragement to do so. Fibre providers have received about £4bn of private funding in the past six months, and with a number of government-backed schemes aimed at improving connectivity, there has been a lot of support.

However, good intentions and funding aren’t always enough. There are still some tricky negotiations to overcome as fibre providers find that access to land isn’t always straightforward.

Darren Zitren from Cluttons explains: “There is a general lack of wayleave agreements, and it is these issues that are hindering the roll-out of more advanced services. In essence, one of the main problems is finding the right party to contact. We often don’t have the right person – and when we do identify them, there are other issues. For example, do they need legal advice? In such circumstances, people tend to sit on these documents and a lot of fibre providers are not chasing.”

Mark Warrenne of fibre provider Giganet says that despite these issues, most landowners are supportive. “When it comes to delivering full-fibre connectivity, they understand that we are future-proofing the network connection for many years to come,” he says – but there are many challenges. These include navigating listed building consent, environmental issues and cost, as would be the case when undertaking work on any private property.

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“When it comes to rural areas, there is an additional challenge – the road network, which will not allow for the same flexibility as an urban road network,” says Warenne. “This can lead to difficulties in gaining access, leading to an extended build programme.”

Warrenne is also conscious of the issues that Zitren describes, where the build-up of paperwork can delay progress. “Wayleaves are legal documents, which presents a challenge as it can make some people feel anxious if they are unfamiliar with the language or terminology,” he says. “We put a lot of effort into how we communicate, doing so in a straightforward manner with plain language from the outset and throughout the engagement.”

He believes that simplifying the process in this way will help speed up the roll-out of fibre and improve connectivity. “There is benefit to landlords and landowners,” he adds. “Full-fibre connectivity future-proofs the connectivity needs long into the future, which is vital in the same way that a safe and reliable water or gas connection is.”

What has made the process easier is the UK government’s Electronic Communications Code, which provides a framework to make network deployment faster and easier. The code was substantially overhauled in 2017 to speed up the process, removing some of the barriers to deployment and introducing swift resolution of disputes.

In 2021, the UK government instigated a new consultancy process to see how the deployment of fibre can be improved. There are several proposed changes that will streamline the deployment of fibre, with the aim of ensuring that government targets for fibre roll-out will be met.

Boosting rural support

Steps are also being taken to improve the provision of digital services to rural communities. Alexander Mather, head of the digital connectivity forum within Tech UK, has highlighted the government’s Project Gigabit for rural deployment. In September, the latest grant in the project was awarded to GoFibre to work with the government and Durham County Council to provide digital services to towns and villages in the area. “There is also the gigabit voucher scheme to provide help in rural areas, which will provide more support,” says Mather.

Although the upgrading of the Electronic Communications Code should smooth the path for efficient roll-out, there are still some potential stumbling blocks. Warenne sets out some of the main issues: “There are concerns over the condition the land or property will be left in after the installation and this may be influenced by previous experience of other utility or service providers.”

But he also believes there are other issues to be considered, pointing out that there are often environmental factors to take into account, which can range from tree preservation to the impact that cable-laying can have on protected species of wildlife.

There are also often discussions on how future maintenance and repairs will be handled – it can sometimes be complicated to agree recurring financial settlements for infrastructure on private land. But most of the steps are all in the right direction, speeding up the process.

While the code has helped providers in many cases, there are still areas to be sorted, says Warenne. “The code has helped greatly in speeding up the delivery of networks on land maintained by local authorities, but I have not seen the same improvement in influencing private land or property owners,” he says. “I still think there needs to be more done to educate private landowners, so they understand who is building in their area and the benefits that full-fibre connectivity will bring.”

One change that Warrenne would like to see is residents given a greater say. “I would like residents living in a private building to be more empowered to vote for improved services,” he says. “For example, if a certain percentage of residents in a block of flats are unhappy with a management service, they can apply to take it on themselves. Given the importance of an internet connection to the modern household, I would like to see this type of process trialled for homeowners on private roads or in multiple dwelling units, seeking improved internet provision.”

Local authorities dragging their feet

Zitren thinks the government should be doing more to drag recalcitrant local authorities into line, pointing out that a lot of councils are doing too little. “Less than half of local authorities have a dedicated digital strategist in place,” he says. There are some exceptions – in the West Midlands, WM5G is showing what can be done, he adds, while there is some good work going on in Stoke.

Mather agrees that there is great variation in the way local authorities are performing, and says steps could be taken to improve all-round performance. “One of the things we do is report when an authority has done something well,” he adds. “By highlighting best practice, we can share information between them.”

But despite the barriers thrown up by negotiating wayleaves and the various issues still to be resolved, it is clear that there has been a tremendous amount of progression to better digital connectivity across the country. It is true that there are still gaps in rural areas and that some local authorities need to up their game, but there are signs of change here, too.

As Warrenne concludes, the signs are positive: “When I attend industry events, it is clear from the people I speak to across the industry that the 85% target is very much in the minds of full-fibre infrastructure providers when talking about their delivery targets.”

There may be plenty of chaos around some parts of government business right now, and certainly some doubt on all aspects of the “levelling up” initiative, but improving digital connectivity seems to be running on schedule.

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