5G mobile infrastructure could be worth £2.8bn a year to Britain – so long as government steps up

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, March 2018. Image: Getty.
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It’s rather unsurprising given this week’s tumultuous events that Brexit continues to dominate time, energy and focus in Westminster.

But the fact is the UK faces some great domestic challenges beyond this, which will arguably have just as much impact on our economic prosperity in the next 10 to 20 years. Not least of these is the installation of 5G mobile infrastructure, which is not guaranteed for the UK and will not happen without concerted action and focus.

Government quite rightly wants the UK to be a leader in 5G. After all, the next generation of mobile connectivity has the power to be as transformative as electricity for our daily lives and for our economy. O2’s recent analysis, ‘The value of 5G for cities and communities’, shows it could save local authorities all over the UK up to £2.8bn a year through efficiencies such as smart street-lighting and more efficient rubbish collections, and cut household bills by up to £450 a year – as well as assisting public services like the NHS move to digital and therefore free up more time to help patients.

This is tremendously exciting. But these benefits for cities aren’t guaranteed and we risk drift without concerted, collaborative action.

At O2 we’re already taking steps to secure that 5G future for the UK. We are launching a 5G test bed at the O2 in North Greenwich later this year and are planning to install similar test beds across Wales, Scotland and in Northern Ireland. We’re also working to roll out the small cell technology that will lay the foundations for our customers to enjoy 5G in places up and down the UK. We’ve already rolled out 1,400 small cells in London in partnership with Cisco, with plans to deploy 300 more in collaboration with Arqiva this year.

But we are not there yet. Building the next generation of transformative mobile infrastructure requires major investment and infrastructure installation in UK cities – and mobile operators cannot do it alone. This investment must be supported and enabled by bold and progressive decision-making in national and local government.

That is why O2 has worked with independent think tank Centre for Cities to draw up a blueprint on how together we can ensure 5G and other upcoming digital developments deliver for consumers and businesses in cities across the country, as well as for UK Plc. It also shows how cities can make better use of existing digital connections, drawing on examples of what is currently working best in places across the UK.


Amongst other things, the report, ‘Delivering Change’, calls for reforms to be made to the Electronic Communications Code to ensure it does not just work on paper. The report also recommends that the National Planning Policy Framework should include a requirement for the provision of high quality digital infrastructure – mobile and fixed – to be pre-installed in all new developments, like other utilities are.

But government should to be even more radical in its approach to tackling the barriers preventing 5G roll-out. Though it is rising, fibre coverage in the UK – which is critical to the deployment of 5G – still falls behind many of the developed nations, particularly for residential. We need that market to be developed and made more competitive to encourage the fast deployment of fast fibre in the UK.

Government should also ensure operators have easier and better access to existing infrastructure, such as BT ducts and poles and full fibre networks for mobile backhaul.

More also needs to be done to expand access to public sites at more affordable prices, so operators can install new mobile infrastructure. I would like to see, for example, the government setting up a challenge fund so people and organisations can apply to enjoy reductions in rent, in return for opening up their homes and buildings in order to improve digital connectivity in their local area. After all, landlords literally ‘hold the key’ to unlocking access to ultrafast connectivity for the UK.

Our vision is that all parties – government, regulators, industry, local authorities, landlords and developers – work together to secure an environment in which it takes just weeks and is commercially sensible to install a 5G small cell no bigger than a laptop into our built environment. Only then can we ensure that the investment, adoption and prioritisation of 5G matches the opportunity it presents – with no exception and for the benefit of all.

Britain was a pioneer of mobile technology. But without the right focus on 5G we risk squandering the benefits of 5G and losing the digital leadership we have worked so hard to establish.

Derek McManus is chief operating officer of O2.

You can learn more about this topic in the ‘Delivering Change’ report, published in association with the Centre for Cities.

 
 
 
 

Could more cities charge employers for parking spaces to help fund local infrastructure?

Look at all that lovely, empty space. Image: Getty.

As government budget cuts continue to bite and competition for funding increases, it’s becoming harder for UK cities to secure the money needed to build or maintain good quality infrastructure. For example, Sheffield’s Supertram network faces a £230m funding gap, and could close unless transport executives can raise the funds to renew the network.

But if central government won’t provide funding, there are other ways for city authorities such as Sheffield to generate income for much needed transport infrastructure. One idea is a workplace parking levy, which is a charge placed on all workplace car parking spaces within a specific boundary.

The premise is simple: each year, the business who owns that space must pay the local authority a set amount of money. Businesses may chose to pay this themselves, or pass the charge on to their employees through car parking fees. The money collected from the levy is used to help fund transport projects within the local area, while also encouraging commuters to shift away from cars and onto other modes of transport.

Pioneer cities

After being adopted in Australian and Canadian cities, the levy was first introduced to the UK in 2012 in the city of Nottingham. During its first year, the charge raised £7m and has continued to raise funds since. The money has allowed Nottingham to keep up its contributions to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) that was used to pay for an expansion of the city’s tram network, along with other important transport improvements.

Currently, the cost per space stands at £402 per year, although there are some notable exceptions to the charge: businesses with fewer than 11 spaces don’t have to pay, and there’s no charge for emergency services and disabled parking.

Other cities have begun to follow Nottingham’s path. Both Oxford and Cambridge have made steps towards introducing their own versions of the levy to fund transport improvements.

Manchester considered the levy as a tool to help improve the city’s air quality, although a proposal was recently rejected by the city council on the basis that the levy would need to be applied across the whole of Greater Manchester to work. Sheffield made a small reference to the potential use of a levy in its recent draft transport vision, although it’s not clear how well developed these plans are.

Together with colleagues from the universities of Nottingham and Southampton, I’ve undertaken research which included interviewing a range of key people from Nottingham’s city council, the local tram operator, the Chamber of Commerce, as well as politicians and managing directors of several Nottingham-based businesses, to find out what made Nottingham’s workplace parking levy a success.


Recipe for success

For one thing, Nottingham is a politically stable city. Labour are the dominant party within the local council and have been since 1991, so councillors are less concerned about suffering electoral losses in response to a poorly received policy, and more confident about implementing more radical ideas.

Nottingham’s boundary is also tightly drawn, which meant that deciding where to apply the charge was more straightforward. Manchester’s experience shows that larger cities may have more difficulty in determining who is subject to the charge.

Initially, some businesses saw the charge as a “tax” on them and opposed the policy; media reports at the time warned of businesses leaving the city and moving to nearby economic centres, such as Derby. But there is no evidence to suggest that these worries have materialised in the longer term.

Identifying a piece of infrastructure, such as a tram system, that will be built using funds from the levy also appeared to be an important argument to “sell” the charge to sceptics. So although there was opposition to the workplace parking levy, there was also a lot of support for the tram expansion and the benefits this could bring.

An opportunity to invest

The workplace parking levy offers cities an opportunity to collect and invest large amounts of money in their own infrastructure; or to leverage even greater amounts of money from other sources, which might otherwise be unfeasible.

For Nottingham, a large part of its success is based on the fact that it preemptively used the money raised through the workplace parking levy to leverage significant finance from the UK government, through the PFI deal. To secure these funds to pay for the tram expansion, Nottingham agreed to commit to repaying 35 per cent of the value of the PFI (estimated at £187m). The council has used the levy on an ongoing basis to help it meet these costs.

The experience of Nottingham and other pioneer cities shows that while the workplace parking levy is based on a rather simple premise, introducing one is not a simple process. There will undoubtedly be opposition; the local authority may need to work hard to emphasise the benefits, in order to adopt the policy. And of course, every city and town is different, so there’s no single path to success.

But as local authorities continue tightening their belts in response to ever more challenging budgets, it may not be long before we see more places taking steps to introduce their own workplace parking levy.

The Conversation

Stephen Parkes, Research Associate, Sheffield Hallam University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.