The Digital Bottleneck: why the UK needs Gigabit Cities

Fibre optic art at the Holbourne Museum, Bath. Image: Getty.
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Over the last decade, the evolution of digital technologies has radically changed the ways that we live and work. At the same time it has also changed the demands that citizens, businesses and other organisations make upon the communications networks that support a digital society.

But most urban communities still face severe bottlenecks in those networks when it comes to taking advantage of the huge benefits technology adoption can bring. For many, they’re still stuck in the last century, limited to using broadband services that run, at least in-part, over obsolete copper-based networks. For others, supposedly able to access new, so-called “fibre” networks, they soon find that coverage is both limited and expensive, and that it frequently doesn’t deliver the promised improvements to their online experience.

Local governments, businesses and consumers increasingly recognise that their connectivity is inadequate to support emerging digital services and lifestyles. Poor digital infrastructure is widely inhibiting innovation, economic and social growth.

Fit For Purpose Digital Infrastructure

But just as certain communities rose to prominence in the industrial age due to their connection via roads, canals and railways, the emerging centres of economic activity and prosperity in a digital age will be those that enjoy access to state of the art broadband infrastructure. Currently this is in short supply, particularly outside the country’s largest cities.

It is generally accepted that the only fit-for- purpose, future-proof digital infrastructure is a 100 per cent fibre optic network. Pure fibre networks operating at Gigabit speeds are over 100 times faster than most current broadband links in the UK. What’s more, they are capable of supporting data uploads as fast as downloads.One Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) of pure fibre bandwidth, both up and downstream, is a step-change even more dramatic than the shift from dial-up to broadband.

In addition to the vastly improved speeds, a pure fibre network is an elegantly simple, future-proof solution to a city’s unrelenting and increasing appetite for bandwidth. With no copper to interrupt the data passing at the speed of light through the fibre, increasing bandwidth availability in the future simply involves upgrading the equipment at each end – leaving the fibre network untouched.

The Key Technology Differentiator

When it comes to the availability of true fibre-based services and connectivity, a cunning marketing game of smoke, mirrors and industry buzzwords has played out over recent years, usually hidden away in the small print of service provider contracts. In most cases, what’s branded as ‘fibre broadband’ actually still involves copper cable. This technology is known as ‘Fibre to the Cabinet’, but it relies on a final leg of copper wire, from the cabinet into the premises. This slows data down and causes congestion.

While these so-called ‘fibre’ services are undoubtedly better than older technology, they cannot compare with the new era of gigabit speeds. And they are woefully inept at supporting the crucial uploading of data, leaving users as largely passive participants of the digital age. 

A Gigabit City Vision

Victorian visionaries saw the need to invest in infrastructure to bring order to industrialisation chaos. Now, a similarly urgent and dynamic vision is needed to support the next step change in our lives and businesses.

The broadband infrastructure development in this country has largely been in the hands of two giants with national agendas that often do not align with the interests of individual cities. It is time to put the interests of cities first.

By facilitating a privately funded, bespoke and future-proof pure fibre deployment, built quickly to minimise disruption and accelerate the benefits, a city can transform it’s digital future. This deployment will create a Gigabit City.

To successfully compete, the UK requires many such Gigabit Cities. Together they will spark innovation and draw new investment; they will develop new approaches to familiar services such as transport, education, health, blue-light, and utilities; and, where appropriate, they will kick-start new ways of doing business that can take full advantage of an increasingly virtualised global economy.

Build Once, Build Right, Build Fast

A Gigabit City’s fibre infrastructure is tailor-made to that city’s unique requirements. Once a city-wide deployment begins, the physical installation of the cables and connection of a city’s key sites proceeds rapidly. In practice, with new deployment technology this can take as little as one or two years.

Typically, the network would first connect those public sector and commercial sites with the most urgent and intensive demand: council offices, libraries, schools, hospitals and surgeries, emergency services and the large enterprises. Once connected, there follows a wave of businesses, data centres, innovation hubs, business parks and industrial estates that rely on data in any form for their commercial existence.

Ultimately the pure fibre network can function as a backbone for deployment of fibre to individual homes, providing residential access to ever-richer forms of digital services and entertainment.

Once the first sites are connected, service providers large and small can begin offering services over the network, bringing new applications, services, features and content to run over the effectively near-infinite capacity provided by the pure fibre technology.

 

The Benefits of Becoming a Gigabit City

Transformational fibre infrastructure at the heart of a Gigabit City brings measurable benefits to both the public and private sectors, and to the citizens themselves.

Economic

With readily available gigabit connectivity, business and councils become more nimble and efficient. The Gigabit City is a magnet for new business development and investment, creating new jobs and fresh opportunities for small companies and start-ups to compete on a level playing field.

Social

Many councils have already implemented e-government initiatives, transforming the ways that citizens access and pay for services while simultaneously lowering operating costs in the process. With a Gigabit City, these strategies can be extended much further, linking schools, libraries and community centres to eliminate the digital divide that currently affects all ages.

Health and Security

Building on the Gigabit City platform, e-health, m-health, telemedicine and wellness projects can be quickly introduced to bring a range of new, emerging technologies to better diagnose, treat, monitor and support patients, and help improve the overall health of the entire population. In addition, the Blue-Light services and essential utility and transport operators can also manage urban risk in better and more cost-efficient ways, using high-definition CCTV, video-equipped emergency services, and the ever-growing range of alarms and sensors to integrate responses faster and more intelligently.

Mobile and 4G

With increasing pressure on mobile networks to support the rise in data usage resulting from the introduction of new mobile services, 4G and LTE, network operators are looking for new solutions. Cities with pure fibre connectivity that can be extended to cell towers will help remove these capacity issues, helping to encourage 4G deployments or maximise the benefits of existing 4G roll-outs.

Public WiFi

One vital building block of public WiFi projects involves placing antennas on street lights, advertising hoardings and inside public premises like shopping centres and sports stadia. With a gigabit fibre infrastructure in place, ISPs are able to connect those antennas directly to the network, instantly solving their need for high-bandwidth connectivity and providing a new experience in public WiFi.

In the Home

Most people couldn’t care less about technology – but they do care about getting faster, better, and more reliable access to the online services that inform and entertain them. Currently, many are trapped with slow and unreliable broadband connections, or have to pay unnecessarily high fees to service providers. A Gigabit City has the potential to support a revolutionary new era of fibre to the home-based services which will forever change the way in which consumers can use the internet.

To download the second of CityFibre’s Gigabit City White Papers, “Driving Economic Development”, click here.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.