Cambridgeshire’s connectivity mission

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is investing £13.6m to boost connectivity. Gill Hitchcock reports on the challenging targets and the delivery team working with suppliers to remove barriers and pave the way for success

Welcome to Cambridgeshire – Credit: Geograph/Mat Fascione/CC BY-SA 2.0

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is on a mission. Over the next four years, the authority aims to provide full fibre upgrades to 31 public buildings. Not just council offices, libraries and schools, but fire stations and GP surgeries too.

The aim is part of its Delivering a Digital Connectivity Strategy. Running from 2018 until 2022, it is the latest innovation from the authority’s Connecting Cambridgeshire programme.

James Palmer, mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, says that since the formation of the combined authority just over a year ago, it has prioritised funding “to ensure we have the digital connectivity we need now and for the future”.

The idea is not just to support public services, but economic growth with better mobile coverage, superfast broadband – 24 Mbps or greater, public WiFi access – particularly in market towns and rural villages, and fibre upgrades.

“We want to make Cambridgeshire and Peterborough a good place for telcos to invest.”
Noelle Godfrey, Connecting Cambridgeshire

There is substantial funding, totalling £13.6m. The combined authority’s board agreed support of £5.6m, while the remainder will come from central government.

“We have had £4m from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to help us get to our 99% superfast broadband target by the end of 2020,” says Noelle Godfrey, director of Connecting Cambridgeshire. “And we have £4m to help us extend and improve the full fibre footprint from the Local Full Fibre Networks programme.” 

This is a £200m pot managed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to help local bodies harness public sector connectivity.

These ambitions align with the government’s targets for 15 million premises to be connected to full fibre by 2025, with nationwide coverage by 2033. And for the UK to be a world leader in the next generation of mobile technology, 5G, with deployment to the majority of the country by 2027. 

Right now, the UK is lagging behind. 

The government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, published in July, recognises that the UK’s full fibre coverage is only 4%, significantly less than the current world leaders. These include South Korea with 99% and Japan with 97%.

Number of public buildings that Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority plans to equip with a full-fibre network over the next four years

Cumulative funding for network upgrades, including £8m from central government

Current UK coverage of full fibre, according to the government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review

Date by which Cambridgeshire and Peterborough aims to achieve 99% superfast broadband connectivity

Godfrey says the main reason for the gap is the UK’s legacy infrastructure: “In a way, the UK is paying the price for having rolled out a telephony system many years ago which is copper-based and at the time was entirely appropriate for what was being delivered. Now broadband services are required, we have got an awful lot of copper in the ground but not much fibre. And that is what has to happen. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the digital economy is hugely important and if we are to remain competitive, we need good connectivity.”

The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review recognises that there are too many barriers which make building networks expensive and too slow, however. Indeed, the government’s Barrier Busting Task Force is working with industry to identify the biggest barriers that exist. New legislation and non-legislative approaches are planned to simplify wayleave agreements, reduce the costs and time caused by street works by standardising the approach, and ensuring fibre connectivity in new buildings.

Delivery team
Meanwhile, Connecting Cambridgeshire has taken its own steps to smooth the path to connectivity. It has created an Enabling Digital Delivery Team to act as a first point of contact with telecoms providers and mobile operators and help remove the barriers they face.

“Some planning processes, street works, [and] the wayleave processes are very difficult and slow down the rollout of mobile and broadband, making it more expensive,” says Godfrey.

“We are looking to cut through that, simplify, and make things work as quickly as possible, so that the infrastructure can be as efficient as it possibly can be. And we want to make Cambridgeshire and Peterborough a good place for telcos to invest.”

She explains that Connecting Cambridgeshire has an existing infrastructure contract with BT OpenReach. It will be tendering for a supplier to help it reach its 99% plus superfast broadband target, with the expectation that a new contract will be in place by the end of January 2019.

And she says the programme is in contact with suppliers including Virgin, CityFibre and “new kids on the block” Gigaclear. Smaller providers include Air Broadband and County Broadband.

Getting a mix of companies and taking the best from each of them, is the aim. 

“What we need is a range of ideas, suppliers and different solutions,” says Godfrey (pictured left). “We are engaging with mobile operators as well, but that is slightly more tricky because they tend to take national view. We are saying that we think this area is important, and they are looking at the bigger picture. ​

“Increasingly, mobile coverage is seen as a considerable issue, not just in Cambridgeshire, but across the whole country as reliance on digital technology, and therefore connectivity, increases.”

Come 2022, how will Godfrey measure success? 

She says that is a difficult question to answer and admits that there are challenging targets, including tripling fibre footprint across the county by 2022. And she says that because the country has four mobile operators, coverage is difficult to measure, adding: “Success in the mobile world is that, while our measurements show that we are now slightly behind the UK average for coverage, by 2022 we will be ahead.”

She recognises potential barriers to delivering the strategy too. For instance, that the heavy and complex regulation of the telecommunications industry will not keep pace with commercial models. Her biggest concern is obsolescence, given the rapidly changing technology landscape. Equally, she recognises that the strategy must move forward at pace. 

“Businesses and communities are suffering without reliable, fast connectivity,” she says.

Sam Trendall

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