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UK government unveils plan to boost connectivity

UK authorities announce scheme to improve connectivity across the country, with satellite-based service kicking off in Scottish islands, a new smart street furniture programme and an agreement with Australia to increase telecoms diversity

Prime minister Rishi Sunak may have inadvertently captured all the headlines at the 10th London Tech Week and deflected attention away from technology, but the UK government unveiled a new set of initiatives at the show in a bid to cement the UK as an international leader in telecoms.

The initiatives include getting high-speed connectivity to the UK’s most remote and inaccessible communities, and providing support for local authorities to procure and test “smart lampposts”, boosting connectivity within local communities.

Future telecoms forms part of the UK government’s five key technologies of tomorrow, and the latest initiative is said to have been designed to ensure the UK is a continued global leader in the telecoms sector and to improve connectivity for people and businesses across the country, ensuring everyone, no matter where they live, has access to high-speed broadband and other digital services they need to thrive in the 21st century.

The scheme joins Project Gigabit, which aims to allow hard-to-reach areas of the UK to benefit from fixed gigabit broadband as much as the rest of the country, and the Shared Rural Network (SRN), a £1.3bn project with the UK’s major mobile network operators to improve 4G coverage and level up connectivity across the UK.

The first part of the new scheme will see Papa Stour in the Shetland Islands, one of the most remote communities in the UK, have its digital infrastructure transformed. Clarus Networks Group has today begun work on installing a specialist Kymeta flat panel, which, when finished later this week, will link to the OneWeb constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to beam broadband connections to the island from space.

The panel’s installation marks the technology’s first commercial roll-out in Europe and forms part of the government’s Alpha Trial programme, which was launched in December 2022 to test the capability and viability of low-orbit satellites to deliver high-speed connectivity to communities in very hard to reach areas.

Looking to boost connectivity further, the Smart Infrastructure Pilots Programme (SIPP) will aim to help UK local authorities deploy advanced digital infrastructure such as smart lampposts. SIPP will support the ambition set out in the UK government’s recently published Wireless Infrastructure Strategy for people, business and public services across the UK to realise the full benefits of 5G and other advanced wireless connectivity – from economic to environmental growth.

The initiative, a joint programme between the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) and the Department for Transport (DfT), will provide up to £1.5m in funding for six local authority-led pilots, which will be matched by smart service providers working with the participating local authorities to procure and test innovative, smart multi-purpose columns or lampposts.

In the scheme, smart multi-purpose columns or lampposts are regarded as street furniture that have the capacity to deliver a range of smart services, including improved mobile network connectivity, public Wi-Fi, electric vehicle charging, public safety and environmental monitoring.

The third part of the connectivity push sees the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the UK and Australia to establish a roadmap between the two nations for future telecoms collaboration.

The UK government noted that telecoms supply chains are global, so working together with international partners was a critical piece of its approach to achieving its ambitions on telecoms diversification – reducing the global reliance on just a number of suppliers to provide equipment for building 5G. The MoU will see the two countries put special focus the development of open and interoperable solutions such as Open RAN.

Making the announcements in a speech at London Tech Week, UK minister for data and digital infrastructure John Whittingdale said: “Improving Papa Stour’s connectivity is a major milestone in our efforts to close the digital divide as it transforms the lives of the island’s residents and visitors, the Smart Infrastructure Pilots Programme shows how we can use technology to make our communities a better place to live and work, and the MoU we have signed with Australia is a significant step in our efforts to work with international partners to build a more secure and resilient telecoms network.”

The government announcements came just as Jamie Stone, MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, welcomed Virgin Media O2’s (VMO2) investment to transform mobile connectivity in the Highlands and Islands, with a plan to build or upgrade 30 masts in his constituency as part of the SRN programme.

Currently, just 26% of the Highlands and Islands benefits from 4G coverage from all four mobile network operators – Virgin Media O2, Vodafone, EE and Three. This will more than double to 68% after all Shared Rural Network upgrades have been delivered.

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