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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.

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