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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.

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