UK telecoms infrastructure must level up for the future

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Any development, whether social or economic, is increasingly linked with communications, so levelling up must have telecoms at its heart, or it is doomed to fail.

Low productivity, skill shortages and a widening regional divide between the affluent areas of the country and the less fortunate can be attributed to the digital divide, and the need for increased telecoms infrastructure. Whether it's for education, to deliver work, or to access goods and services, affordable connectivity touches every part of our lives, yet two million people in the UK are still unable to access it.

About the author

David Crawford is Managing Director at Cellnex UK.

Currently, many regions aren't getting what they need. The North East of England – a key target for the Government's levelling up agenda – has been hampered by a productivity gap, lagging behind other areas of the UK. A recent report highlighted the area as having a particularly low broadband performance score , contributing to a lack of growth in some industries.

Greater connectivity brings greater prosperity

As the UK’s largest independent telecommunications wireless infrastructure owner and provider, with 9,000 sites throughout the country, it’s clear to us that more infrastructure – whether towers or street level small cells – is required to address the UK’s current and future needs.

Without this infrastructure, businesses could struggle to keep up with developing technology that relies on connectivity. For example, more than half of manufacturing executives surveyed by SAP believed Industry 4.0 would significantly impact sectors and businesses in the next five years. To compete in the era of hyper-connected Industry 4.0, manufacturers need to know they will be able to operate their complex, wirelessly enabled machinery reliably and at peak performance.

The Made Smarter Commission’s task of setting a vision for the future of UK manufacturing will be critical to the growth of this market beyond city hubs, helping regional areas to provide local jobs and preventing talent from moving elsewhere to gain industry employment. As the nature of work changes, with more people moving to rural areas to work remotely, or building commuting hours into the working day, there is a demand for fast, reliable connectivity. And, as passengers return to rail commutes it is astonishing that, in 21st century Britain, reliable connectivity is not more widespread across the country.

These recent changes in the way we work, combined with Government ambitions, present huge opportunities to increase both fixed and wireless connectivity to ensure every corner of Britain enjoys the same access to reliable services. When it comes to levelling up, connectivity should be seen as being as fundamental as the supply of electricity or water.

The shared infrastructure opportunity

Implementing the agenda requires significant investment in less-affluent regions. During a period of rising costs and inflation this comes with challenges but, fortunately, telecoms infrastructure solutions already exist to reduce costs whilst improving reach.

To date, shared telecoms infrastructure has been a missed opportunity, and has an important role to play in levelling up. By sharing the cost of one tower across multiple mobile network operators (MNOs), who can reduce planning, build and operational expenses by tapping into services supplied by the infrastructure owner, an opportunity to roll out more connectivity at greater speed is created. Furthermore, the cost savings to MNOs can be passed directly to consumers.

And with upgrades to rail infrastructure a clear theme throughout the agenda, there is significant potential to incorporate telecoms, and shared telecoms infrastructure into these plans as a means to enhance social and economic benefits UK-wide. With networks passing through many rural areas, ubiquitous wireless connectivity along all routes can do more than create a better passenger experience. It can help to drive local economic growth and support local businesses through an increased productivity. The opportunity for shared infrastructure here is huge and, as we continue to deliver improvements along the Brighton London Mainline route, we’re looking forward to seeing how the benefits are felt by all.

Actions speak the loudest

The UK is at a crossroads and levelling up is not only welcome but critical for the country to address competing and compounding crises. Fortunately, there is cross-party support for vastly improved national connectivity, and good progress is being made; for example, with the Shared Rural Network (SRN) and Gigabit Britain initiatives. But it's clear that without addressing our digital divide, reducing inequality and creating a more balanced economy simply cannot happen.

It's not a small task and will take time to implement, so collaboration is key. We see great intent, but action needs to go further and be more consistent. The private sector is keen to invest in telecoms infrastructure and will work with government to ensure nationwide connectivity where there are no digital divides. Infrastructure providers are ready and waiting to support - both with shorter-term solutions like shared infrastructure and through collaboration with policymakers to provide a swift rollout for connectivity in the longer term.

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David Crawford is Managing Director at Cellnex UK. His management experience spans an extensive range of geographies and industries, having led businesses in Asia, the Caribbean and Europe in the fields of business process outsourcing, media management and telecoms.