National Infrastructure Commission questions UK progress

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has released its annual report, dampening enthusiasm around telco progress, but the industry got off lightly compared to everyone else.

Progress has been made by the Government and telcos in closing the not spots across the country, as well as accelerating the deployment of 5G, though the NIC has been quick to point to the shortfalls. Most notably, connectivity on the railway.

The risk which is at present today is a false sense of achievement. 5G is progressing quickly, though it is always important to remember the 4G rollout is not complete. In the rural communities and on roads and railway lines, connectivity is poor, irrelevant as to what the telcos or Government will tell you otherwise.

“The UK desperately needs a strategy that looks well beyond this Parliament, setting out infrastructure policy and funding up to 2050,” said Sir John Armitt, Chair of the NIC. “It must contain goals, plans to achieve them, funding to deliver those, and deadlines for delivery.”

Although it might as well be deemed an impossibility, Armitt is correct with his statement. Infrastructure strategy and investment should not be politicised, though it already has been. In making some bold and embarrassing statements, both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn made connectivity a political ping-pong ball, potentially creating a policy war which bounces back and forth across the aisles achieving very little.

That said, the work of egotistical politicians cannot be undone therefore we have to pursue the current course.

Looking at the report, the telco industry got off lightly. Government departments have been panned for the thus-far laughable attempt to improve rail connections through HS2, better the energy efficiency agenda for the electricity networks and increase house building rates to meet promises of PR hungry politicians. But the telco industry did not escape all condemnation.

Interestingly enough, the NIC suggested mobile voice and 4G data services were now available on all UK motorways, though most who have driven these routes might find some points of disagreement. But it is the rail network which has fallen woefully behind according to the report.

“Motorways now have near universal mobile coverage for both voice calls and 4G data, and work is progressing on the rest of the network,” the report states. “In contrast, progress in improving mobile connectivity on the rail network has been limited, and work appears to have stalled since government endorsed the Connected Future recommendation.”

As with every good backseat driver, the NIC has made several recommendations to improve the connectivity prospects of the UK.

  • Introduce a Digital Champion in the Department of Transport to ensure connectivity aims are being translated into actionable policy and strategy
  • Formalise a strategy to deliver increased connectivity on rail routes. This strategy should be put down on paper by December 2020
  • Force National Rail to collaborate with third parties for access for third parties to deliver a trackside connectivity network on railway land. These arrangements should be formalised by December 2020
  • Begin a competitive process for delivering mobile connectivity improvements on at least four main line routes by June 2021

Interestingly enough, despite there being many pitfalls in the progress of the telco industry in recent months and years, the report has been quite favourable. Progress is of course being made but the UK telco industry is far from perfect. Perhaps more attention will be paid to this critical industry following a new appointment at the NIC.

James Heath, currently the Director of Digital Infrastructure at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), has been announced as the new CEO of the NIC.

“Infrastructure has shot to the top of the political agenda and this role offers an unparalleled opportunity to advise government on how to ensure future investment will deliver lasting benefits to communities across the UK,” Heath said. “I will be joining a talented team and supporting a group of Commissioners whose expertise offers huge value in shaping a strategic approach to infrastructure policy.”

The NIC does have the clout to influence Government decision making and policy, and perhaps this is an effort to pay homage to the increasing importance of telecoms in every aspect of our daily lives. Heath was the man who led the Supply Chain Review process and will of course bring a lot of industry specific experience with him.

Budget is good start, but don’t get too excited – National Infrastructure Commission

The National Infrastructure Commission has given the UK’s Autumn Budget the thumbs up, but will the shiny new roads take much needed funding away from the country’s quest towards the digital economy?

While it might be a boring topic, roads and railways received a lot of attention during the budget announcement. But this is one of the bigger concerns for the NIC, which is wondering whether the a lack of private investment in such schemes would detract from government investment in other areas, most notably, next generation technologies for communications and energy.

“Today’s Budget includes a number of welcome measures for infrastructure – but the real test will be next year’s Spending Review and, crucially, the National Infrastructure Strategy that the Chancellor has promised,” said Sir John Armitt Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission.

“This strategy should bring together the roads funding from this Budget with longer-term funding for cities and projects like Northern Powerhouse Rail and Crossrail.  And it should include access to full fibre broadband and greater use of renewable sources for our energy.”

The budget, which was unveiled on Monday, featured plans to hold the internet giants accountable to pay more tax in the UK, as well as a £1.6 billion commitment to support the Industrial Strategy and R&D funding, including technologies from AI, future manufacturing, nuclear fusion and quantum computing. An additional £200 million from the National Productivity Investment Fund will also be pointed towards various schemes to encourage the rollout of fibre infrastructure throughout the UK, most notably in rural regions with primary schools to be the first to get special attention.

Looking specifically at the National Productivity Investment Fund, investments in fibre and 5G will increase to £715 million between 2019 and 2021, though whether this is enough to keep the UK on track in the global digital economy remains to be seen. The ambition set out in July in The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review targets a nationwide full fibre network by 2033. Alongside the Budget, the government is publishing consultations to mandate gigabit‑capable connections to new build homes.

The consultation, which is being led by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, will aim to amend the Electronic Communications Code (EEC) to place an obligation on landlords to facilitate the deployment of digital infrastructure when they receive a request from their tenants, while also enabling telcos to use magistrates courts to gain entry to properties where a landlord fails to respond to requests for improved or new digital infrastructure. The EEC is starting to look like a very large stick for the telcos to swing around and force people to do anything they want.

What is slightly concerning is a lack of attention for 5G. In the budget document on the HM Treasury website, 5G is actually only mentioned once.

What is worth noting is this budget might actually mean nothing in a couple of months. Hammond has given himself adequate breathing room with a no-deal Brexit scenario looking increasingly likely, stating it would be back to the drawing board should the worst-case scenario become a reality.

Exeter and Leeds win National Infrastructure Commission prize

With the technology world dreaming of autonomous vehicles, everyone has to remember perfecting the technology is only part of the battle. The roads have to be updated as well.

This is a concept the National Infrastructure Commission has understood, and looked to address. The national Roads for the Future competition looks to address these very problems with a £50,000 prize fund to fuel new ideas. It might not be an astronomical figure, but the lessons learned will certainly be useful.

And the winners are… City Science based in Exeter and the Leeds City Council.

“The vehicles of tomorrow will be very different to those we see around us today. We need to make sure our roads are ready for this revolution,” said Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission Sir John Armitt. “With such a strong shortlist narrowing down the entries was no easy task, but the ideas put forward by City Science and Leeds set them apart. I’ve been really pleased by the enthusiasm for our competition, and I hope it leads to ever-greater interest not just in the technology in the vehicles, but also in the roads they will travel on.”

In Exeter, City Science will examine how sections of roads in urban areas could initially be dedicated to driverless vehicles, as a key step in kick-starting their take-up and integrating them safely into the existing transport network. Over in Leeds, the council will investigate how the data generated from digitally connected cars could be used to improve traffic light sequencing, allowing highway authorities to better manage traffic on their roads and reduce tailbacks.

“Over the past three months, this project has given us the opportunity to explore the enormous potential of CAVs and set out a tangible vision to deliver their benefits on the UK’s roads.,” said Laurence Oakes-Ash, CEO of City Science. “It is essential that we get the rollout of CAVs right, using them in ways that can integrate with mass transit, promote healthy cities and create successful communities.”

“While digitally connected and autonomous vehicles are still a long way down the road, they have the potential to offer massive benefits in major cities like Leeds,” said Leeds City Council executive member for regeneration, transport and planning, Councillor Richard Lewis. “We look forward to continuing our work with all our partners and stakeholders to turn this innovation into reality.”

The other short-listed entries were how CAVs can be best deployed to beat congestion and improve the air quality (entry from Immense), Arup’s entry assessed the future management of the side of the road through the introduction of flexible kerb space, while Aecom’s idea was to investigate how technology can enable traffic lights to ‘talk’ to vehicles.

Back in January, the National Infrastructure Commission, alongside Highways England and Innovate UK, launched the Roads for the Future competition received 81 entries with ideas for how the UK’s road network could be adapted to maximise the potential benefits these new vehicles could bring. These ideas could have investigated any aspect of the segment such as new travel opportunities, freeing up time focused on driving, and helping to improve safety.

The competition itself followed the release the first-ever National Infrastructure Assessment, a report recommendations for how the identified infrastructure needs to be altered or adapted for autonomous vehicles. Some of these recommendations included that the Government devise a National Broadband Plan by Spring 2019, to deliver full fibre connections across the whole of the country, including those in rural areas.

Technology is obviously critical for the development and adoption of autonomous vehicles, as is the 4G/5G infrastructure, but it is nice to see the roads are being considered as well.