A host of industry experts took part in an in-depth panel session at Connected Britain 2019 on Tuesday

With the race to 5G well underway and numerous initiatives launched to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas, consumers might be forgiven for thinking that building Britain’s future digital infrastructure doesn’t present too much of a challenge.

But – as the many people residing in urban not spots know – there is actually much more work to be done. Characterised by challenging terrains or a high commercial risk, these areas in the heart of some of the UK’s most popular cities account for significant gaps in the country’s connectivity map. So how can the challenge of urban not spots be addressed?

At Connected Britain 2019, a panel – which featured speakers from Hyperoptic, Vodafone, Community Fibre and Cornerstone – looked at answering that very question. During the debate, speakers called for better regulation, more education and greater cooperation from property owners – but no clear solution to the challenge emerged.


Priming property owners

As consumer demand for connectivity goes up and more people get online, one of the biggest challenges, according to Belinda Fawcett, General Counsel & Director of Property and Estates at Cornerstone, is the lack of available sites for the deployment of infrastructure.

“We are in situation where we are trying to find landlords who will have infrastructure on buildings and that is becoming more complicated and more and more a real battle,” she said. “If we want a truly connected UK, we need to persuade the property industry that the value is not in the rents they will receive from us but in actually having a connected building. There is evidence now that tenants will pay more money for connected building and that is becoming more accepted by property industry but unfortunately not wide enough.”

Expanding on Fawcett’s point, Ker Anderson, Head of London Area Network at Vodafone, explained that this is because as the capacity on networks grows, cell sites need to be deployed closer together.

“Cells are getting smaller and smaller, to the point where they need to be on individual buildings to provide coverage and capacity,” he said. “And it is too easy for Local Authorities, for planners to say no – we’ve seen some improvements in planning regulations over the last few years but they are still too fragile; it is too easy for objections to have material impacts on the whole process.”

To address the problem, Anderson called for operators and the property industry to work more in harmony and have a more joined up approach, with connectivity provision taken into account from the design stage.


Opportunities for operators

During the panel, the issue of fibre not spots was discussed, with panel moderator Andrew Daly, Manager, Consulting, at Analysys Mason, raising the question of whether urban areas with lower affluence are particularly challenging.

Paul Wilson, Head of Network Planning at Hyperoptic, was quick to highlight that in such areas, operators needed to make the business case for deployment.

“We have to challenges ourselves in the way we think about these places and how we build business cases,” he said. “If we talk about the future of connectivity, how ubiquitous it is and how important it is, there shouldn’t be a poor/rich divide as we should drive to deliver it and there should be a use case for everyone.”

Jake Mitchell, Head of Network Delivery agreed, stating that Community Fibre prided itself on not excluding any demographic and highlighting that there are ways to balance higher-cost estates with lower-cost ones. Mitchell also emphasized that there was an education issue which needed to be addressed, calling for operators to work with residents and explain what needed to be done, for example, digging up roads, and what benefits would be achieved.


The road to better regulation

Throughout the panel discussion, whether in relation to property owners or network builds, regulation was another recurring theme, although not one which the panellists agreed on.

While Wilson said that the right regulatory environment was needed, he also said that operators cannot wait for it to be perfect. This was in a contrast to Fawcett who deemed legislation – mainly in the property industry – was necessary to drive the UK towards a full digital economy.

“My challenge is not just to operators but also the Government and property industry to work together and take responsibility for the future of the UK because ultimately that’s what this is all about,” she added.

And although Anderson did not think enough had been done around planning regulations, he did not think that regulation alone could achieve what was required, saying: “Policies and documents don’t get infrastructure built, they don’t deploy connectivity solutions.”

Continuing, Anderson concluded with a call for operators, property owners and the Government to all “work together for a common cause and collaborate for shared infrastructure where we can.”


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