Addressing the UK’s digital divide through network growth | Neos Networks

How collaboration and network growth can help address the UK’s digital divide

There’s no doubt that high-speed internet connectivity forms the foundations of hybrid working and blended learning. It helps power our businesses, educate our children and unlock career opportunities. Yet behind the discussions about levelling up, there’s a lot to achieve to truly end geographical digital inequality across the nation?

A lot can (and has) happened since February when the government published its levelling up whitepaper.

The whitepaper acts as a framework to end economic and social digital inequality across the UK. It aims to boost economic growth, enhance educational attainment and restore the social fabric of those parts of the UK that have stalled.

In short, it has the potential to transform our digital landscape. But it can’t achieve success without a solid countrywide commitment to an improved digital communications infrastructure.

The pursuit of geographical and digital equality

High-speed connectivity plays a pivotal role in ending geographical and digital inequality. It can help to enable citizens across the nation to have fair and easy access to the internet, regardless of their location. Connectivity is the backbone that supports economic dynamism and innovation. It drives growth, unlocks jobs and unleashes the power of the private sector. With hybrid working and blended learning programmes looking set to stay, it is necessary to shine a spotlight on connectivity shortcomings and expose the extent of the UK’s digital divide.

Yet connectivity and mobile infrastructure issues are surprisingly scant within the government’s whitepaper, covering just three of its 332 pages. However, it’s not all bad news. As the whitepaper points out, back in 2020, the government committed £5 billion in public funding to deploy gigabit connectivity across at least 85% of the country by 2025. Something we and our partners are actively striving to support.

Often referred to as the AltNet fund, this money was seen as a pledge to support the delivery of gigabit networks across the 20% of the country that is most difficult to reach.

The essential role of AltNets

AltNets, or alternative network providers, are independent telecommunications companies building out their own networks (as well as relying on the networks of others, like ourselves). They offer high capacity fibre connectivity services to UK residents, competing against the two large incumbents, Openreach and Virgin Media. There’s been a groundswell of AltNet activity over the last few years, much of which has been focused on typically underserved regions of the UK.

With many AltNets locally focused, we’ve been working in partnership to extend both their reach and their capacity options. They rely on our exchange backhaul services, to connect into our wider UK network, giving them access to better, more reliable connectivity at the speeds being demanded of their surrounding residents.

As our partnerships progress, we’re also seeing them investing in FTTP builds or working with residential providers like CityFibre to support and extend the opportunity.

Achieving high-speed access in the Midlands

We used this partnership approach to help Gigabit Networks achieve its vision to connect the Midlands. Rolling out connectivity services to key cities that include Derby, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Leicester and Nottingham, the full fibre network will eventually cover up to 60,000 SME businesses and more than 750,000 households.

That includes the deployment of high-speed services to around 70,000 social housing residents. These areas have previously been denied access to high-speed internet, a problem that became particularly evident during the pandemic.

Full-fibre end-to-end future for Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and London

Following the completion of our Project Edge network expansion rollout, we doubled our network reach across 2021 – unbundling 550 Openreach exchanges with capacities up to 100Gbps. In the wake of this success, we recently announced that we’re launching our first access network, bringing high capacity end-to-end connectivity to four key business hubs across the UK, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester and London.

This full-fibre, last-mile investment will help regionally based businesses and offices keep pace with their national and international competitors. It goes a long way towards our aim of bringing high capacity 100Gbps connections within reach of more UK businesses, as well as facilitating the rollout of advanced 5G services and other next-gen technologies.

Is there an over-reliance on Openreach and Virgin Media?

A January report by the Public Accounts Committee suggested the government is over-reliant on Openreach and Virgin Media to deliver the nationwide connectivity solution.

The report found that the two telecom giants are focused on the less costly, easier to reach urban conurbations, leading the government towards a potential failure to deliver on its promise of providing affordable solutions for rural areas and remote towns and villages.

There’s also another reason for the slow progress. Not all potential suppliers of connectivity infrastructure are treated equally by existing planning legislation.

Exposing the barriers to equality

In December last year, the House of Commons Library published a research paper, Building Broadband and Mobile Networks, which outlined for MPs the current challenges and legislative framework covering how networks are built, including planning requirements and access agreements.

The incumbent national communications network operators have permitted development rights. This means they can install roadside broadband cabinets, build mobile masts or erect telephone poles without the need to obtain planning permission.

For other companies, there are barriers that are delaying their ability to build that infrastructure at the speed needed to meet the government’s targets. Obtaining those access agreements and wayleaves is often difficult and long-winded, with the process sometimes taking up to two years.

An even playing field

There is a clear and present need to move beyond the usual national suppliers. This has been emphasised by the £5 billion AltNet fund. However, while some suppliers are able to move at speed without the need to negotiate permissions and access rights, others face speed bumps that slow down the rollout.

It seems that when it comes to levelling up, this fairness of play should apply to the challenger companies in the telecoms infrastructure supplier community as well. Levelling the supply playing field will help to accelerate the gigabit rollout and advance the government’s plans. It’s almost a no-brainer.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to work with the AltNets, assisting in high capacity fibre network deployments that connect communities and boost regional businesses. And as the UK strives to become a truly digital nation, hopefully we’ll see the competitive shackles fall away.

Will levelling up become an achievable, balanced and sustainable reality? We certainly hope so. And Neos Networks will be there every step of the way.

We can connect you anywhere in the UK

Discover our network reach

Check your connectivity