Digital rooftops: how Camden Council is building connectivity

Ahead of his speech at the Socitm Spring Conference, Councillor Theo Blackwell explains Camden’s blue sky approach to improving access.

Internet connectivity is becoming as important a part of local infrastructure as roads and railways. It’s not just important for the delivery of public services – it’s crucial for the local economy and growth. Camden has booming professional and tech sector as well as established creative industries. Slow broadband speeds and capacity in some parts of the borough are a major challenge for the local economy.

Companies seeking to remain or relocate in an area will increasingly consider how well their businesses and consumers can access the internet, and the quality of the service.

Camden Council, recently recognised as MJ ‘Digital City 2015’ for its range of digital initiatives, is now leasing rooftop spaces on council buildings and housing blocks to telecommunications companies not just to boost mobile coverage (as many already so) but host new broadband kit.

Together with leasing space to boost phone connectivity, our scheme (nicknamed the ‘digital rooftops’ initiative) could generate much needed income of an estimated £6 million over ten years, which is up to £600k per year to spend on services.

Camden will also be able to extend previous work done to make the borough super-connected for residents and businesses in the future.

Camden has already provided more than 300 free PCs in libraries and free public wifi on high streets. In the future we will be looking at ‘smart cell’ technology to boost signal from street furniture.

We are taking advantage of changes in technology which now allows more choice than traditional fibre-optic cable connections from established providers. For example, Camden is in advanced discussions with new providers like Optimity, a rapidly expanding Hackney-based company, to implement wireless technology network. Speeds of between 10Mb – 1Gb connections to businesses could be provided across the borough once the scheme is in full operation.

Wireless connectivity antennas can be installed much faster than fibre-optic cables, and without digging up roads.  The connection operates through a license free radio-frequency band, which allows data rates that previously could only be accomplished by fibre optics.

The plans have added benefits. We are able to reinvest to tackle the digital divide by providing free wifi access for 74 tenants’ halls on council estates, digital skills training and refurbished PCs for use by the community. This will enable tenant halls to be used for a wider range of activities, including homework clubs.

By increasing capacity and coverage in the borough Camden is also promoting economic growth and helping local businesses and services. These proposals will not just deliver benefits to residents and businesses; they will allow us to help tackle the financial challenges we face as a local authority and prepare us for the changes in relationships with the business community that the business rate changes will usher in.

This is one example of Camden’s expansive approach to digital.  This sees the challenge of technological change as fundamental to public services, business and residents – not just in terms of channel shift.

Councillor Theo Blackwell is cabinet member for finance and technology policy at London Borough of Camden

Find out more about the Socitm Spring Conference by visiting the event website.

Colin Marrs

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