In the recent Spring Budget, the Government announced the first steps of its strategy to invest in digital infrastructure to support the next generation of mobile and broadband technology. This will take the form of £16 million for 5G facilities, and £200 million for full-fibre broadband, and will involve a collaboration between central government, the private sector and local authorities.

Full fibre broadband

Full fibre broadband is the next generation of faster, more reliable, secure and resilient internet connection. The plans in the Budget announcement to invest in a programme of local projects reflect some of the ideas put forward in the public consultation undertaken by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in December 2016.

The programme will involve:

  1. Directly connecting public sector buildings such as schools, hospitals, libraries and council offices. Connected public sector buildings would provide network bases for operators to then more easily connect homes and businesses.
  2. Linked to this, the Government intend to support local public sector customers to come together to create enough broadband demand to reduce the financial risk for private operators of building new full-fibre networks.

The public sector would act as an 'anchor' customer, creating enough demand to make it commercially viable for a network operator to invest in deploying a local fibre network. Guaranteed revenues would mean that commercial operators could consider the commercial case to build a local fibre network.

Examples of this model given in the public consultation included:

Peterborough City Council: In 2013 the City Council agreed a strategic partnership with CityFibre, for which they created a full fibre network. The network initially connected 107 public sites, with another 220 agreed by 2016. CityFibre have deployed over 90km of fibre infrastructure which has been made available on a wholesale basis to provide full fibre services to businesses.

NYnet: a wholly owned subsidiary of North Yorkshire County Council* provided a local fibre network across North Yorkshire, with connections to a range of public sector sites. Investment in this approach was facilitated by their ability to make cost effective connectivity to public sector sites available.

*Advised by Ashfords on the setup of NYnet.

  1. Opening up public sector assets to allow fibre to be laid more cheaply. Local authorities will be encouraged to offer concessions for the use of their duct networks, or their street furniture.

5G strategy

5G is the next generation of mobile connectivity. It is currently in development and is expected to be ultrafast, low latency and more reliable. The Government published a new 5G Strategy alongside the Spring Budget.

Local authorities are to play a key role, as the Government highlighted that they expect there to be significant challenges in finding suitable sites for 5G infrastructure, and in ensuring that the telecommunications networks meet local needs.

Local authorities' role will likely include:

  1. The adoption of local planning policies setting out how high quality digital infrastructure will be delivered in their area. The Government are currently consulting on making this mandatory through the recent Housing White Paper. The 5G Strategy certainly indicates that supportive planning policies will be considered when allocating funds to local projects.
  2. The development of "local connectivity plans". These plans should demonstrate how an area will meet its connectivity needs and should be developed with other key parties. Ideal plans should include engagement with Local Enterprise Partnerships, supportive planning policies, Chief Technology Officers and asset registers. The government intend to publish best practice guidance on this in 2018, and the quality of local connectivity plans will also be taken into account in when allocating funding.
  3. Participation in a working group of local areas, government departments, landowners and industry. The Government aims to bring together a working group with the aim of providing an accurate picture of local area requirements for the deployment of the 5G networks.

Local authorities will play a key role in implementing both the 5G strategy and the full fibre broadband plans. The funding set aside for these projects is likely to provide opportunities for innovative local authorities to be at the forefront of ensuring that their area benefits both economically and socially from next-generation technology.