Digital connectivity: championing the delivery of infrastructure to enable the UK to compete

As the need for good digital connectivity continues to grow, so does the need for the infrastructure to support it. Ahead of the release of the latest report in our research series, Connecting today for tomorrow, we talk to Belinda Fawcett, Director of Property and Estates, & General Counsel, at Cornerstone, one of the largest mobile infrastructure providers in the UK.

Belinda, first quick question – how many connected devices do you have in the room with you at the moment?

I have six here today. It’s telling that 10 years ago that would have been one or maybe two.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity for the UK if we can meet or exceed targets for connectivity?

There will be so many benefits both economically and socially. If we reach the targets the Government has set of standalone 5G coverage in populated areas by 2030, the country will be able to generate billions in investment as it will be able to boast the coverage and capacity to support global businesses looking for a home.

Coverage is a significant issue in rural areas as there are still large swathes of the UK which either have no mobile coverage or coverage from only one mobile network operator. The Shared Rural Network is trying to address this imbalance and give rural areas the same opportunities for connectivity as their urban counterparts. In urban areas capacity is the key factor, which is why making sure the infrastructure is in place to provide this is a priority.

Conversely, if the UK doesn’t meet its targets, I don’t see how we will be able to compete on the world stage. We are already behind many of our competitors so have some catching up to do. To do this – we need ubiquitous connectivity across the whole of the UK.

 What are the main challenges to meeting the UK’s connectivity goals?

As I see it, it’s a multi-layered issue covering planning, communication with local and regional stakeholders, and central government funding to create the right environment for the operators to invest. One of the key challenges however is educating the users of mobile phones that this connectivity and great service they all want all of the time can only be provided if the infrastructure is there to host the equipment. There are perhaps some negative perceptions around installing and maintaining infrastructure for mobile connectivity. Without this infrastructure there can be no connectivity and lifestyles and businesses will be affected, as will the introduction of new technologies such as EV charging for electric cars,as EV chargers increasingly need to be connected to share real-time data and run charging apps.”

You mentioned planning as an issue – this is something that has also been identified in our research as a sticking point. From an operators point of view, what could help overcome this issue?

There are two sides to this issue. The first is planning teams across the UK. After funding cuts for Local Authorities, planning teams are becoming more stretched, and understandably are taking longer to get through applications that come to them. We have had an example of one planning application taking two years to be put forward for a decision. There needs to be more support for planning departments so they can help speed up delivery of infrastructure (and all other types of development) to help the UK meet its own targets.

The second part of this is that when it comes to making planning decisions, we are finding that many applications are being rejected and we are then forced to appeal, where they are often then approved. If there was some way to streamline this process, so that both parties didn’t have to spend money and time on the appeals process, there could be more funding for planning teams. Plus the industry could also re-invest savings to help speed up the roll-out of 5G while also maintaining the essential 4G network. It’s also worth remembering that we are often required to compile substantial environmental reports for many of the applications, especially for the Shared Rural Network, where they can be quite lengthy. These reports are necessary – and are a reminder of the upfront investment needed to even get to the point of a planning decision.

There is also a real need to raise awareness within the local community to ensure they understand the fundamental relationship between mobile infrastructure and the levels of connectivity they need and expect.

Is this where a Digital Champion could come in?

Definitely. A Digital Champion could be the focus point for one or several Local Authorities, connecting all the stakeholders within the LA as well as the industry. Sometimes, as infrastructure providers, it is not clear who to approach at a Local Authority to open up engagement. Digital Champions are the key to unlocking the benefits of digital connectivity by working inside Local Authorities to encourage development in this area.

That is interesting, as our survey results show that local councillors say that relationships with operators could be improved.

Yes, having someone as a special point of contact would help – and there is also a role for Digital Champions to help promote the message to the local area that without the right infrastructure in place, connectivity may not be as good as it could be.

The onus must also be on central Government to get behind a campaign to share this message more widely across the UK. The message needs to land with the public and the users of connectivity not just the planners and Local Authorities.  

Another key question emerging from our report was where the funding for Digital Champions should come from.

There are many Government pots of money on offer under different banners for accelerating digital connectivity, including £100 million to put the UK at the forefront of future research, and £40 million to boost 5G tech take-up by businesses and public services. There is a case that Digital Champions could effectively smooth the path of the challenges some of this funding is designed to address – and could achieve similar effects by different means. A review of all these funding pots, and perhaps slicing them differently could free up funding to support Digital Champions for Local Authorities.

Belinda Fawcett, Director of Property and Estates, & General Counsel, at Cornerstone, one of the largest mobile infrastructure providers in the UK.

Contact

If you do not wish to receive further communications from us, please email [email protected]. More details on how to opt out can be seen in our Privacy Policy.

Darren Zitren

Partner, head of infrastructure

Manchester

T +44 (0) 20 7647 7041
Darren Zitren, head of infrastructure, Cluttons
Contact

If you do not wish to receive further communications from us, please email [email protected]. More details on how to opt out can be seen in our Privacy Policy.

Gráinne Gilmore

Director of research and insights

Head office

T +44 (0) 20 7647 7142
Gráinne Gilmore, director of research & insights, Cluttons

#connectingtodayfortomorrow

Mobile connectivity roll-out challenges – planning, investment, and awareness
Blog

Mobile connectivity roll-out challenges – planning, investment, and awareness

As part of our latest research series ‘Connecting today for tomorrow’ we have been talking to experts across the sector about the importance of digital connectivity starting with Gareth Elliott, head of policy and communications at Mobile UK.
Net zero doesn’t work without high-quality connectivity
Opinion

Net zero doesn’t work without high-quality connectivity

The UK has been at the forefront of the world’s journey to net zero, being one of the first countries to pledge to reach the milestone by 2050.
How smart are you?
Blog

How smart are you?

Or to put it another way. How many smart devices did you use/interact with yesterday?
The what, where and why of wayleaves
Blog

The what, where and why of wayleaves

How are you reading this blog today? Is it from your laptop in the office (be that work or home) or are you on your smart phone device, whilst on the move?
5 post-pandemic trends shaping the Central London sales & lettings market
Blog

5 post-pandemic trends shaping the Central London sales & lettings market

The COVID-19 pandemic led to dramatic changes in how we live and work and has had a huge impact on the UK housing market.
Future office and 5G
Opinion

Future office and 5G

The complexities and changes resulting from the pandemic have forced workers to adapt, expectations around working practices have changed rapidly and workplaces must evolve to keep pace.
Understanding connectivity: terminology
Opinion

Understanding connectivity: terminology

The terminology around Connectivity can be tricky to decode. Here our team tells us the most frequently heard terms and explains what they mean.
What is connectivity?
Opinion

What is connectivity?

We answer the most commonly asked questions around connectivity.
Cluttons welcomes PM’s commitment to connectivity – but there are significant challenges ahead
Opinion

Cluttons welcomes PM’s commitment to connectivity – but there are significant challenges ahead

Cluttons, the property consultancy and market leading adviser to the largest mobile operators and fixed-line providers, welcomes Boris Johnson’s commitment to making connectivity one of his top five priorities.
A well connected workplace is a win win
Opinion

A well connected workplace is a win win

In an age where good connectivity has become more important to occupiers than transport links and amenities, digital infrastructure is now a key factor in the decision making process when it comes to taking on a new office space.
Digital infrastructure is key to unlocking performance
Opinion

Digital infrastructure is key to unlocking performance

In a wide-ranging discussion at today’s London Real Estate Forum, a distinguished panel of experts explored how London’s digital infrastructure is being improved so that it can effectively compete on the global stage.

Related services

Network estate management

Our experts manage all property aspects of our client’s infrastructure to ensure they can provide their customers with reliable mobile and fixed line connectivity during the rollout of new…

Wayleaves & easements

Our experts combine their property and infrastructure knowledge to provide you with a bespoke approach to wayleaves and easements, resulting in faster delivery whilst enabling you to focus on your…