Viewpoint Article

by Alfonso Alvarez, Deputy Managing Director at Cellnex UK

The UK is at a crossroads. Levelling up, and the Government’s vision of a Digital Britain, are not only welcome but critical for the country to address competing and compounding crises. A collaborative approach is key to ensuring a connected future for the UK.

Historically, rail has been at the heart of the UK’s prosperity, from steaming ahead in the industrial revolution, to connecting cities and workers. With 990 million journeys made across the UK in the last financial year, rail is a key enabler for growth.  

Logistics, transport, import and export services rely heavily on the rail industry. Research commissioned last year by the Rail Delivery Group found that in 2018/19, rail freight contributed £2.45bn to the UK economy, ‘with benefits dispersed from the South of England through the industrial Heartland of the Midlands, Wales and North England up into the central belt of Scotland and beyond’.  

In a business in which talk no longer focuses on transport but on mobility, and where user experience has become absolutely crucial, 5G development is the main facilitator of the technological revolution. Our rail service must be fit for purpose if we are to truly embrace a ‘connected Britain’.  

Digital connectivity on our railways will push predictive maintenance, data analysis and AI-powered decision-making and solutions to make services efficient and fast. Increased connectivity along key routes will help drive local economic growth, create high skilled jobs and support businesses. It also has the potential to drive energy efficiency, with a better connectivity offering (combined with rising fuel prices) encouraging people to swap cars for trains. 

Cellnex UK is collaborating with Network Rail on one such project along the busy commuter route between Brighton and London. The project is a clear example of the potential for a UK-wide, world-class shared telecoms infrastructure, providing uninterrupted cellular internet, mobile reception, and fibre services through tunnels, ‘not-spots’ and rural communities. 

However, its success lies in a collaborative partnership approach between government, telecoms infrastructure providers, rail operators, and mobile network operators; and this must be incorporated into connectivity planning across the UK’s rail network. Traditionally, there hasn’t been a great deal of collaboration between rail and mobile operators in Europe, but there is a distinct need – and consumer demand – for both the public and private sectors to work together. 

The UK’s Digital Strategy recognised the role of digital technology in future-proofing jobs, national security, our economy and global standing. The Government’s support for Project Gigabit will see nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage by 2030, with 5G coverage for most of the population. Policy, including the Integrated Rail Plan, has given industry a clear indication of the commitment to further innovation and investment in our railways – with a strong focus on new technologies to upgrade the current network. This approach will include upgrades to the tracks, platforms, as well as depots and surrounding areas.  

However, there is one anomaly – railway lines may still not be adequately covered. Hard-to-connect parts of the railway, such as cuttings and tunnels, can be omitted in coverage obligation statistics. Plus, in many rural areas, the capacity provided will often not serve the needs of full train carriages. The end result will be continued dropped calls and inconsistent data service. 

Combining rail upgrades with digital connectivity presents an efficient opportunity to deliver a better-connected Britain. Focused on providing continuous mobile connectivity throughout a passenger’s entire journey, the benefits can extend beyond the train itself to support station vendors, and can support opportunities to enhance the customer journey, such as smart parking. However, to make this a reality in the near future, collaboration is vital, and digital connectivity must remain a key element of the new government’s vision if we hope to turbocharge the economy and reduce digital inequality.  


Join Cellnex and the wider UK telecoms community as they discuss everything from the 5G to Industry 4.0 at this year’s live Connected Britain conference, the UK’s leading digital economy event

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