Contributed Article

In a rapidly changing world, new technologies are transforming the way we live and work. Much has been said about the importance of rural connectivity in delivering these changes, but what about our towns and cities? Paul Stonadge, Sales and Commercial Director at Cellnex UK, discusses the need to address the digital divide in urban areas in order to tackle exclusion.

In a post-pandemic world, we have become even more dependent on reliable, high-speed connections for our work, education, and access to healthcare. But as the world has become even more digital dependent, the digital divide across towns and cities has grown and must be addressed urgently if we are to grow socially and economically.

The work done to bridge the digital divide in the UK has traditionally focused on improving access in rural areas. This has been done through the vehicle of the Shared Rural Network, which has successfully improved internet access in the most remote areas of the UK. However, 5 in every 6 people live in urban areas in the UK, and the number is increasing.

Across urban areas of the UK, only 24.7% of the South West and 42.2% of the North West of England have access to gigabit broadband. Yet it is recognised that these areas have the potential to be two key technology hubs across the UK. Although most people might picture these places as hyper-connected, the fact is huge numbers of people in towns and cities still struggle with internet access. With the right collaboration, investment and infrastructure, urban areas could play a vital part in supporting the UK economy and growing digital skills.

Levelling Up

Urban areas make up 84% of the UK’s population, yet they are massively impacted by the ‘urban digital divide’, with less than 50% of urban areas in the UK having access to gigabit-capable networks, For businesses, this can have a significant effect on productivity, and the subsequent economic impact is huge.

Recent research conducted by Three UK, YouGov, and Development Economics found that professional services firms – legal, accounting, and media businesses – lost an average of £5.3 billion in revenue per year due to poor connectivity, accounting for an annual output loss of £2.8 billion to the British economy.

The ‘Levelling Up’ agenda is a welcome focus that can help support regional productivity, but addressing the need to level up cellular coverage in dense urban areas should be an industry and policy priority in the fight against digital exclusion.

With the Government recently going through a significant period of change, it is more important than ever that the new Prime Minister continues to ensure levelling-up remains a key parliamentary aim. If we hope to truly address regional disparities, creating opportunities for businesses to thrive by investing in urban connectivity to tackle low productivity and skills shortages is essential.

Policy to remove barriers

Effectively bridging the digital divide requires swift, cost-effective solutions in high-density populations. A combination of more investment and streamlined planning processes for deployments is beneficial, but the simple solution lies in collaboration between industry leaders and Government decision-makers.

Much has been done to break down the barriers to delivering robust connectivity throughout the UK. Whether it’s via industry rallying together through campaigns like Speed Up Britain to call for improved, streamlined processes in the Electronic Communications Code; or appealing against aspects of policy that disrupt the efficient rollout of infrastructure – the commitment to building a digitally connected world is being heard.

For example, as we collaborate and rollout 5G connectivity, the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Code’s reform is a milestone development as now new site applications can be streamlined, enabling towers to be installed more quickly. The Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill is also currently passing through parliament and seeks to encourage faster and more collaborative negotiations of tower installation on private land. The effort to create a digitally connected ‘Gigabit Britain’ is beginning to take shape.

While the telecommunications industry is rising to the challenge and making good progress, there is still much work to be done in meeting the Government’s ambitions to ensure all urban areas have access to the opportunities, knowledge, services, and goods that come through effective digital connectivity. Collaboration with policymakers is pivotal in the rollout of 5G connectivity and must be at the forefront of industry ambitions and future levelling up plans if we hope to successfully close the urban, and indeed, UK-wide digital divide and successfully grow the UK economy.

When it comes to the levelling up connectivity, the North-South divide in the UK remains a huge challenge. Join operators, local authorities, and the wider connectivity ecosystem in discussion about the biggest issues in UK telecoms at the upcoming Connected North conference

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