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Research from connectivity consultancy FarrPoint has found that local authority digital leaders across the UK have shown evidence of good progress on boosting their digital connectivity, but also that challenges remain, in particular a hesitance to leap into 5G.
FarrPoint surveyed more than 100 digital leaders at local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales in December 2022, with responding councils in a variety of geographical locations, from “dense, urban” to rural areas.
The study was said to be the first of its kind to look at priorities across fixed and mobile connectivity – examining a range of topics from gigabit-capable broadband to 5G, smart places, telecoms and net-zero – specifically in local authority areas – and the barriers that can prevent progress.
Overall, the study found that good progress was made in 2022, with almost all surveyed councils (97%) believing their organisation recognised the priority of digital connectivity and the fundamental role it plays in their area’s competitiveness. Just over two-fifths (43%) of councils that responded indicated they had an up-to-date digital connectivity strategy, with around 12% having no digital connectivity strategy at all.
All responding councils felt at least reasonably well informed about digital connectivity coverage in their area. Lack of funding from central government was seen by councils as the biggest barrier to improving connectivity, closely followed by deployment issues. All respondents agreed that gigabit-enabled broadband plays a vital role in enabling their region to remain competitive, with nearly all respondents believing their organisation has a role to play in ensuring gigabit is delivered in their area.
Many councils were under-prepared for the forthcoming telecoms switch-offs, with more than a quarter having no plans in place. In addition, the majority of councils (60%) said they wanted to ensure their area was fully covered by 4G first before investing more in 5G.
Only 43% of local authorities had deployed smart places technologies – such as the internet of things (IoT) – in their area, with one in four still questioning the benefits. Four-fifths of respondents were unsure how improved connectivity can reduce carbon emissions.
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Assessing the findings of the study, FarrPoint said it believes UK local authorities need to pay more attention and awareness to net-zero as targets for this area get closer. It added that the least progress it had seen on ensuring digital connectivity was aligned with net-zero targets, suggesting this is an area that isn’t fully understood yet, despite the overwhelming majority of local authorities having declared climate emergencies in their area. Connectivity was noted as an essential enabler to achieving these targets.
“Our research highlighted some good progress on digital connectivity within local authorities, but there are still some areas for further development,” said FarrPoint chief executive Andrew Muir. “With the focus from national government and industry on rolling out gigabit services and investments in fibre, it’s not surprising this was the area where we saw most progress from councils in 2022.
“There have also been improvements in 4G coverage, and to a lesser extent 5G, along with some advancements in smart places and IoT. I’d advise local authorities to ensure they have an up-to-date connectivity strategy, and also to prioritise preparations for the telecoms switch-offs, as some of these changes are already happening.”
Ceren Clulow, director of Connecting Cambridgeshire, who contributed to the report on the survey, added: “Digital connectivity is key to supporting regional development priorities with clear economic growth potential. As someone who works in a local authority, and closely collaborates with other councils, operators and telecoms industry bodies, I really welcome this report.
“It raises the importance of connectivity and the key role local authorities have to play in achieving the leading-edge digital infrastructure needed for businesses and communities to thrive,” she said. “Having a unified digital infrastructure strategy, with clear actions and timescales, is essential for all local authorities.”