As UK internet traffic grows dramatically across coming decades – Ofcom’s estimates of future demand for mobile data alone suggest a 45- to 80-fold increase by 2030 – there is a “serious public concern that the UK is not adequately investing in critical telecoms infrastructure”.
London vs the UK
It seems ironic that it’s not rural areas but inner cities that fare worse when it comes to superfast broadband.
London (along with Hull) languishes at the bottom of UK broadband league tables, with seven London constituencies – the Cities of London and Westminster, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Bethnal Green and Bow, Poplar and Limehouse and Westminster North – expected to have superfast penetration of just 76 per cent once works are complete.
Figures show that improved broadband connectivity would give the capital a major economic boost.
One particular challenge facing the capital is that owing to London’s large number of local authorities, different planning restrictions operate in different parts of the city. It’s something that broadband operators find particularly frustrating, according to Matthew Evans, CEO of The Broadband Stakeholder Group, the UK government’s advisory forum for telecoms policy. “There are reasons some take longer with planning processes – for example, main roads will slow things down.”
However, initiatives are already trying to resolve this. For example, says Evans, a directive from Europe is being written into law to help the coordination of works. Evans explains: “If you’re digging for a water main, it would make sense to coordinate with the telcos.”
Speed = growth
Figures show that improved broadband connectivity would give the capital a major economic boost. The London mayor’s office believes that moving from basic to superfast broadband could boost London’s economy by around £4 billion by 2024.
Businesses, though, don’t always realise the benefits of opting for better speeds – which can be seen as an unwanted expense. The regulator Ofcom estimates 89 per cent of London’s businesses and households can obtain superfast connections through fibre broadband, but only 25 per cent opt for the faster link. There are also an estimated 6,500 properties in “not spot” areas, where internet speeds run 10 times slower than the average across the capital.
With this in mind, recently appointed Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has recognised the need for investment. He has already announced plans for London to become a “world-leading tech hub”. As part of this, Khan wants to address the skill, infrastructure and business issues currently holding London back. The initiative will be overseen by the appointment of a Chief Digital Officer.
Khan also wants 99 per cent of properties in the capital to have access to affordable superfast connections by 2018.
Khan also wants 99 per cent of properties in the capital to have access to affordable superfast connections by 2018. To that end, he has established a connectivity advisory group to encourage London’s internet service providers to work with City Hall to improve connectivity and deliver fast and universal access to the internet.
Meanwhile, under the City of London Corporation’s Superfast City programme, businesses on Golden Lane Estate in EC1 can access speeds of up to 80Mbps. The programme is also looking at how to better serve SMEs.
Among recent initiatives to improve London’s coverage and speeds, there have been projects including free Wi-Fi in Hackney and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London and cellular radio sites in Southwark. In addition, service providers have been investing heavily in their networks to support higher speeds. This is resulting in a range of new services enabled by technology, such as fibre optic networks connecting premises directly to local exchanges – which takes away the need for slower, copper-based cabling.
Another solution, G.fast, is an emerging technology capable of delivering speeds in excess of 100Mbps (1Gbps). Seen by some experts as “an intelligent interim solution” until fibre has the same coverage as copper does today, it works by taking high-speed fibre connections closer to the premises, using a short copper cable to complete the link.
In Nesta’s European Digital City Index 2015, London was ranked 12th out of 35 European major cities surveyed for digital infrastructure.
Meanwhile, a government-backed connection voucher scheme operating in London and other UK cities has recently come to a close. It allowed small and medium-sized businesses to claim up to £3,000 to cover the cost of connecting or upgrading to superfast broadband. This particular initiative was a huge success in London, according to Craig Melson, Communications Officer at ISPA UK (The Internet Services Providers’ Association). Melson says: “It was up to local authorities to push it – and areas including Hackney and Southwark got a great response.”
London vs the world
So how does London compare to other capital cities? The short answer is “not brilliantly”.
In Nesta’s European Digital City Index 2015, London was ranked 12th out of 35 European major cities surveyed for digital infrastructure – based on internet download/upload speeds, cost of broadband, mobile internet speed and availability of fibre internet. However, when rated for download/upload speeds alone, it ranked just 26th (Paris took the top spot).
When it comes to fast broadband, cities with agile infrastructure have the edge. According to Ken Eastwood of Digital Nomads: “Other countries are developing 1Gbps and they do that by taking fibre into the business premises. South Korea is the leader in this – they have chosen to invest in infrastructure and have widely developed public-access Wi-Fi networks.”
Given that London faces a specific challenge, the city fares quite well, says The Broadband Stakeholder Group’s Matthew Evans. At the same time, he agrees with Eastwood that South Korea is getting it right. “Seoul in particular has lots of flats so fibre is more cost-effective to deploy to certain areas. And once you have the infrastructure, you can use it to connect SMEs.”
Meanwhile, says Eastwood, Japan and parts of Sweden and Denmark can also point to efficient broadband. In addition, in cities such as Helsinki, local councils own some infrastructure, which allows them to set up their own fibre links that operators can rent, says Evans.
A similar idea is being mooted in the UK. According to the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Committee: “Many councils and housing associations own ducts and fibre for connectivity, CCTV and other networks. If these were opened up to third-party providers it could transform the digital connectivity for citizens and businesses and generate very useful revenue to fund hard-pressed public services.”
Some local authorities are already going down this route; Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council, for example, has opened up its fibre network to a concession agreement. This gives commercial providers access to existing duct and fibre networks, reducing cost and disruption. At the same time, the local authority gains revenue and helps get high-speed digital connectivity to more local people.
However, London is hard to compare with other capital cities because of the number of variables involved, says Andrew Ferguson, Editor at thinkbroadband.com. He explains: “London as an area is much larger than other EU capitals that fare better speed-wise. Our love of low-rise and suburban living makes fibre to the building harder to deploy compared to some capitals.”
Therefore, says Matthew Evans, the problem in London isn’t about lack of investment in fibre: “It’s how we access it that’s an issue.”
He explains: “Many problems are centred around the last metre: getting connectivity from the pipe into the building. That’s why we have seen a focus among councils on the standard Wayleave contract – the agreement between the building owner and operator.”
Wayleave contracts are a major barrier to broadband connectivity, says ISPA’s Craig Melson. “To get your fibre across the road, through the courtyard and into a building you may need to seek permission from several people,” he says, “and they might all have different requirements.”
Our love of low-rise and suburban living makes fibre to the building harder to deploy compared to some capitals.
Andrew Ferguson, thinkbroadband
Mayor Sadiq Khan is therefore looking to simplify this. Rather than having to go to numerous parties and jump through several hoops, there will be one Wayleave contract with standard terms and costs.
Taking this into account, there is no need for technical innovations: the technology to take London from 94 per cent coverage at 30Mbps to 100 per cent already exists, says thinkbroadband’s Andrew Ferguson. The barrier now is “just the willingness to spend money to get there”, he says.
With this in mind, what will the broadband landscape look like in London? With Brexit imminent, investment could be cut – although this looks unlikely given the promises made by Sadiq Khan.
Read part 1 of our report on London's connectivity here.
Kate O’Flaherty is a journalist specialising in consumer and b2b technology. She has written for SC UK Magazine, CIO, The Times and The Guardian. Kate is one of a number of experienced journalist contributors to our second edition of HomeWork, with features and comment on the business landscape for New and Growing Companies in London.