Utilities to focus on disrupting pedestrians not vehicles

The UK Department of Transport has unveiled a new consultation which proposes new utilities infrastructure would have to be installed under pavements as opposed to roads.

The aim is to reduce disruptions to traffic across the country. Said disruptions to people’s journeys and congestion are estimated to cost the economy around £4 billion, though the new proposition is supposedly one which can address this. This new approach will be applicable to telcos for fibre, but also electricity, gas and water companies.

The consultation document states:

“Unless the Permit Authority consents to the placing of apparatus under the carriageway including to assist with the roll-out of national infrastructure projects or to enable urban greening and street trees, it is a condition of this permit that activities placing new apparatus underground should, where possible and practical, be placed under the footway, footpath or verge.”

The concept of the consultation is simple. When laying new infrastructure utilities and telcos will have to dig up pavements not the road anymore. It seems it is a lot more important to get people to work than to keep the pavements safe, though this might be an interesting approach to reduce the disruptions caused by 2.5 million road works each year.

As part of a wider scheme which will be known as ‘Digital Street Manager’, the Department of Transport also intends to force the utilities to be much more organized when deploying or upgrading infrastructure. It seems residents and local authorities are sick of roads being repeatedly being dug up, when realistically multiple projects could be completed back-to-back, minimising disruptions.

While this is not the sort of consultation which will have people rioting in the streets, there are pros and cons to both sides of the argument.

The idea of digging up pavements as opposed to roads has been the norm in some countries around the world for some time, such as Germany, and it does reduce disruptions. This is not to say it can be applied every time, but however it is sensible. Most roads have pavements on both sides of the road, therefore pedestrians can simply cross the road should there be work being done.

That said, there is criticism. Some might suggest the work would still overflow onto the road as there are few pavements which are wide enough to house a digger and several workmen. You also have to wonder what those with front doors which open directly onto the pavement would do during the works. Presumably in some awkward situations they would have to just give up on going in or out of their home until the work has been completed.

Another point to consider is the ‘real estate’ which is actually available. Gas or water pipes are not exactly small, and most pavements are not exactly wide. When you have to find space for the pipes, electricity wires and fibre cabling, you might run out of room rather quickly. In some cases, it might simply be impossible.

It is an interesting idea, and while something does need to be done to ensure civil engineering projects are completed in the most efficient manner, the industry has been calling for less red-tape not additional regulations…

UK mobile lobby group bemoans inactivity from local councils

Perhaps the preached proactivity of central government will mean little towards the UK’s connected dream if local authorities and councils are creating a mobile bottleneck.

While it is hardly a surprise to see the lobby group representing the major UKs MNOs complaining the world is not being fair to the multi-billion-pound corporations, it would hardly come as a surprise local councils are not up-to-speed. Firstly, you have to consider the age-old stereotype of slow-moving tides in the public sector, and secondly, there is also a lot on the table for these councillors to be considering.

“Mobile connectivity has transformed our daily lives, and 5G is expected to take us even further, but we must ensure that at all levels of government we are equally prepared,” said Gareth Elliot, Head of Policy and Communications for Mobile UK.

“Councils have a vital role, yet while many are working towards a connected future, our research has found that there is still a lag in fully prioritising mobile connectivity. With launch plans announced for 5G now is the time to take the opportunity to work with industry to break down barriers and champion mobile connectivity, to ensure the next generation of mobile infrastructure can be deployed quickly and effectively.”

According to the telco’s lobbyist in its Councils and Connectivity report, a very minor percentage of local authorities are doing all they can to secure the foundations for the £164 billion opportunity presented to the UK economy through 5G by 2030. Again, you have to take the following numbers with a pinch of salt considering where they are coming from.

Mobile UK suggests only 28% of the plans set forward by the local authorities refer to mobile connectivity, though the majority do see the importance of fixed broadband. Only 13% of the councils have audited their assets for the suitability to host digital infrastructure, though we are not too sure the civil servants should shoulder all the blame here. The telcos have a responsibility to identify and secure assets for their own infrastructure, hence changes to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) to grant more powers.

Perhaps the more damning statistics are 74% of councils have yet to apply for funding to improve digital connectivity, while only 44% have a have a cabinet member with

specific responsibility for digital issues. In terms of the funding, it is there and available from central government, while DCMS has also supported calls from Mobile UK for local authorities to delegate digital responsibilities to a single committee or digital champion. These are necessarily and clear steps forward, and a lack of progress is either stubborn, negligible or ignorant; none of which are favourable adjectives.

From Mobile UKs perspective, the answer is relatively simple; having a pro-active conversation with the telcos and identifying the barriers to entry. Some of these might be opening up more authority owned assets to mobile infrastructure or aiding the installation of fibre ducting for backhaul from street furniture. For those less-progressive councils, simply identifying mobile and writing specific objectives in plans is a step in the right direction. The Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership might not be the most advanced, but Mobile UK points out that in the latest Strategic Economic Plan there is plenty of attention given to both mobile and fixed connectivity.

Although Mobile UK will be attempting to make a mountain out of a molehill, it is its job to make life easier, quicker and cheaper for the telcos after all, we strongly suspect there is more than an element of truth to this report. And in the instance of this truth, there will be negative outcomes.

For all the work which the telcos and central government is doing to facilitate improvements in 4G connectivity and the deployment of a 5G network, it means very little if there are bottlenecks in the process. There will of course be proactive councils and local authorities, who should be applauded, though the staggering nature of others will only direct the rewards of the 5G economy elsewhere, potentially creating a digital divide.

While report should almost certainly be read in context, as there will be a risk of exaggeration, inactivity from the local authorities will almost certainly present consequences. Much of the attention from a legislation and policy perspective has been directed towards DCMS and other government departments in recent years, though the ability for local authorities to action these initiatives is just as critical a factor to success.