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Just as it was announcing the next phase of its Project Gigabit programme to accelerate the roll-out of fixed gigabit broadband across the country, the UK government has announced a new scheme to enable the further deployment of 4G and 5G networks.
The government said the scheme aims to boost mobile coverage by cutting red tape and making it easier for operators to install more 4G and 5G network equipment in particular items such as street lights, bus shelters and traffic lights.
It noted that street furniture such as road signs and CCTV poles can be used to improve 4G coverage, but they are also integral to the roll-out of 5G, which requires a larger number of smaller “cell sites” to ensure seamless coverage and to meet surging demand for connectivity.
But to date, telcos have often found it difficult and time-consuming to acquire the information needed to verify that a structure is suitable for hosting network equipment – such as its location, physical dimensions, proximity to the street or access to a power source – and this is slowing down the pace of deployment, said the government.
In response, it will now invest in piloting the latest innovations in digital asset management platforms. This software will make it easier for local councils to share the data that mobile companies need to accelerate their roll-out plans and deliver the revolutionary benefits of 4G and 5G to people and businesses.
The move will see each of the eight winning projects from the £4m Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator (DCIA) receive a share to explore how digital software can help simplify local authority processes when telecoms operators request access to publicly owned buildings and kerbside infrastructure.
Launched in September 2021, the DCIA project collaborates closely with other government programmes, such as the National Underground Asset Register, to ensure alignment of data models and coordination of stakeholder engagement. The DCIA programme will consider all types of publicly owned structures, including buildings and street furniture for supporting roll-out, but the government said it is particularly interested in street lights because of their number and density.
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The project is intended to ensure that communities in 44 local authority areas can expect to benefit from faster and more reliable mobile coverage sooner. It could mean there is less need for new masts, which can often take longer to build and set up. If successful, the technology could be rolled out to local authorities across the UK.
The project winners are based across England and Scotland as part of the government’s mission to level up access to fast and reliable connectivity. Areas to benefit from the pilots include Angus, Dundee, Fife, Perth and Kinross in Scotland, as well as Tyneside, Sunderland, Dudley, Wolverhampton, Somerset, Dorset and several other areas across England.
“Reducing the time it takes to deploy mobile infrastructure is important to enable mobile operators to roll out 4G and 5G across the country and to meet ambitious government targets,” said Gareth Elliott, director of policy and communications of Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators. “The DCIA trial and its project winners will provide positive examples of how local authorities can use technology to speed up processes and develop effective relationships with mobile operators to improve coverage for all.”
Launched almost a year ago to get the UK government’s fixed broadband roll-out programme back on track after doubts were raised over whether it would meet targets, Project Gigabit aims to deliver next-generation gigabit broadband to more than a million homes and businesses in what are regarded as hard-to-reach places. The next phase of the £5bn infrastructure project will see the government move ahead with plans to connect up to 187,000 rural premises to what is described as top-of-the-range broadband infrastructure in hard-to-reach areas.
Broadband providers have been invited to submit bids for contracts worth up to £292m to upgrade rural homes and businesses across Cumbria, Durham, Northumberland, Cambridgeshire, Dorset and Teesdale – with initial work expected to begin later this year.
The government has also responded to a call for evidence launched in March last year to better understand the demand, benefits and barriers involved in connecting the fewer than 100,000 premises likely to be very hard to reach with gigabit-capable broadband, where the costs and challenges of roll-out become prohibitively high.