Digital connectivity has played a role in changing the economic, social and physical fabric of UK cities. Full fibre connections to every home and 5G coverage will continue this change in some ways we can predict, and others we cannot. Cities need to prepare their built environment and human capital to take advantage of this. Cities in the UK and around the world provide examples of how they are doing both.
Speed up investment in digital infrastructure. Investment in the digital ‘hardware’ of fibre and mobile networks in cities continues to grow as data demands grow at nearly 50 per cent a year. This densification of fibre and mobile networks will accelerate towards the introduction of commercial 5G from 2020. Cities need to prepare for this now so that they do not fall behind their domestic and international counterparts and so they can keep up with public expectations. This must be done while ensuring that life for businesses and citizens is not unduly disrupted and any potential economic and financial gains for cities are maximised.
Cities can take action today to accelerate improvements in digital infrastructure by reducing unnecessary barriers to investment. York and the City of London have shown that cities can speed up investment by:
- Demonstrating the ambition to be a digitally connected city – action is at least as important as strategies. Embedding the use of technology to improve the quality of council activities – from paying council tax to remotely monitoring potholes — is the best signal to investors and the public of the benefits of investment.
- Creating an attractive market – working at the city scale to create common rules, rather than as individual local authorities, makes rollout simpler by avoiding regulation changes along and between neighbouring streets.
- Making digital access work in new ways — dense fibre and mobile networks connecting every building and potentially lamppost in a city will likely require new arrangements to enable access to many times more sites than current digital networks require. New commercial models and the capacity in local authorities to enable or deliver new installations, maintenance and upgrades should be considered.
The Government can also play a stronger role in supporting cities to deliver its ambition for world-class digital connectivity. To do this it should:
- Include a requirement for the provision of high-quality digital infrastructure – mobile and fixed — in all new developments in the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This will reduce unnecessary disruption, costs and delays for residents or firms moving in.
- Review the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) after 12 months and take action if its provisions remain a barrier to new investment in digital infrastructure. The ECC has significantly reduced rents offered to landowners for hosting new mobile masts or cells. Landowners are now much less willing to engage with operators looking to install new masts or cells to provide the capacity that consumers demand in cities. Network operators and the British Property Federation have both called for action.
Improve digital skills provision and innovation. Providing infrastructure is not enough. Evidence suggests that the UK is not making the most of what is already available. Superfast broadband is available to 94 per cent of homes in cities, but take-up is 43 per cent. And in the delivery of public services, take-up of digital innovation varies significantly across cities. Without action to increase the ability and desire of individuals, businesses and local authorities to capitalise on the potential of this public and private investment, then digital and economic divides are likely to widen further.
- The national government must devolve the adult education budget to metro mayors, as was promised, to allow them to support digital skills provision.
- Cities and businesses need to take a leading role in Local Digital Skills Partnerships (LDSP), helping to coordinate digital skills activities across many local stakeholders and ensure that evaluation and evidence are central to all interventions
- Cities should embrace the opportunity of existing digital technology to improve public services by adopting best practice, upskilling the public sector workforce and improving procurement.