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Written evidence submitted by the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership
For comment: DCMS Committee Inquiry and Government response to New Builds Consultation
The impact of coronavirus will need to be considered against all question areas
How realistic is the Government’s ambition of nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, and what measures (regulatory, financial, technical, other) will be needed to achieve it?
- Concerns have been raised from the digital infrastructure sector related to EU skilled migrants in telecommunications workforce, especially amongst contractors. The new points immigration system doesn’t make allowances for telecommunications skills.
- There is a need to maintain high quality reinstatement of roads and meet ambitious timescales, especially as there will be much demand from local authority civils works in general which will also be an issue with competing large projects such as fibre rollout and the Commonwealth Games in the West Midlands. This could lead to lack of quality relating to reinstatement.
- The Impact on local areas of required highways activity / permissions will need to be considered. The Government must consider how to help Local Authorities mitigate the one-off surge in capacity required of council services such as highways teams, when rolling out full fibre. There have already been reports of broadband providers rolling out across a city and creating capacity issues within highways teams. Local roads are a vital national asset and need to be managed carefully – Government must avoid the easing of highway regulations as a solution to this.
- Another area of pressure could be around wayleaves – as experience has shown, this requires much effort with the different divisions in Local Authorities, from highways, to planning etc, to ensure all key internal stakeholders are aware of digital infrastructure build plans and they have been briefed around wayleaves – to ensure they do not become barriers to rolling out of full fibre.
- Regarding the Government timetable (in terms of publicly funded and the commercial roll out), feedback from the BDUK Superfast broadband programme highlighted many challenges around timescales. Outside of the intervention areas highlighted, there was a reluctance from providers to upgrading existing infrastructure to full fibre as part of their commercial roll. Areas that did see full fibre being rolled out, often only had one provider, which meant prices remaining high for many residents. We believe that introduction of competition would have the impact of bringing down prices in the long run.
What are the challenges to the roll-out of 5G and gigabit-capable networks? To what extent do existing legislative, regulatory and spending plans address them?
- We support the proposed legislation regarding connection of new build properties. And welcome planning authority powers to reject connectivity plans if the developer hasn’t shown evidence of engagement with network operators.
- Could legislation be issued to obligate property developers to inform Local Authorities, Broadband providers and MNO’s in advance of their proposed new developments? In the Black Country – for our BDUK Superfast programme – we had a unique task group which brought together the 4 Local Authority representatives, the broadband provider and it worked really well to work around wayleaves and other key issues. This could be the model nationwide.
- Welcome clarity from Government on what the planning authority connectivity plan guidance must include?
- More than one provider in an area- will encourage competition – which will mean lower prices for full fibre for local residents. Fibre will be the back haulage for any mobile infrastructure – so this is a key requirement.
- Lack of business case for rural 5G – there will be a need for significant public money pump priming if 5G is to expand in rural areas. Again, fibre is key here.
- Local Authorities are the frontline point of contact for residents regarding concerns about 5G. on frontline of community backlash on 5G. The MNO’s must do more to help communicate the benefits of 5G, and to address any residential concerns regarding safety – maybe a national safety taskforce should be set up to run roadshows across the country. More is needed around myth busting and getting residents to realise the benefit of 5G.
- Issue around the size of masts – some Local Authorities Councillors and residents have raised concerns about the visual appearance of the masts. Nobody wants a mast outside of their home.
- Feedback from Local Authorities has suggested the mobile coverage data that Ofcom uses to outline coverage is inaccurate, out of date and unreflective of consumer experience on the ground. The presentation of Ofcom data is confusing and unnecessarily complicated – data needs to be simplified – and better explanatory notes are expected and required from Ofcom.
- Planning regime and deployment of mobile infrastructure – Local Authorities are finding difficulty in deployment; many joint meetings are scheduled with the Planning department to avoid rejections. It is recommended that pre-application discussions, communicating with MNOs what would be acceptable and comms work with residents and Councillors are required to raise the benefit of 5G and the need for larger masts.
- We recommend that MNOs are encouraged to share their roll out plans with Local Authorities as well as other mobile providers up to six months before submitting an application. Again – see earlier point about a regional task group – where MNO’s should meet with Local Authority representatives to set up a planning system which is effective for all (for example – regarding suggesting alternative locations – this could all be done electronically and more efficiently – to save time, and resources).
- Recent conspiracy theories have led to a number of masts being attacked across the UK, with many of them being set alight. Although DCMS has released statements condemning these attacks – much more is needed by Government to address the fears and concerns being raised. Local Authorities have been receiving FOI’s regarding the impact 5G has on health for a while now. A national campaign exploring the risks, and debunking them must be developed.
What needs to happen to ensure the Government’s ‘outside in’ approach successfully addresses the digital divide while also delivering value for money?
- Feedback on the design of ‘Outside In’ programmes has indicated that it is over-centralised. There are many positive learnings and lessons from the BDUK Superfast programme that can be integrated into the delivery of ‘Outside In’. Local Authorities must be empowered to monitor and manage delivery at a local level, allowing them to effect change where needed.
- Clarity from providers needed on timetable of which areas will be served first
- Digital skills initiatives are a key part of take up for full fibre services for communities who only recently received superfast, this applies across all areas.
- ‘Outside In’ is ultimately focusing on rural areas – and we would welcome a similar programme for urban areas. Or that the focus be relaxed so that all areas in the UK are considered.
- Government is assuming all those connected will have access to devices to realise the full benefit of full fibre. This may not be the case – as rural poverty may be a barrier for residents to purchase the latest equipped devices to get the benefit from full fibre. Government could consider a scheme to allow the rural poor to purchase digital devices as a subsided price.
What does take-up of broadband and mobile services indicate about consumer and business attitudes to digital connectivity? What needs to be learnt from this for the roll-out of, and switchover to, gigabit-capable networks?
- There is evidence that well-funded demand stimulation programmes have complemented efforts to extend publicly subsidised superfast broadband, our members have seen a marked improvement in the take-up of broadband services from both residents and businesses.
- Further investment in demand stimulation programmes is needed to further raise residents and business awareness that superfast broadband and ultrafast broadband is available to many of them. Moving forwards, many will need to be informed about the benefits of gigabit speeds, and future demand moving forwards. This will avoid the lag in take up and the need for future demand stimulation programmes to encourage take up. Current Coronavirus is very apt – broadband services are being utilised as never before as the mass of the population works from home in the UK. Many residents and broadband providers have reported local FTTC structures that are at max capacity – leading to broadband lags and broadband outages for short periods of time. Having full fibre in the future will ensure that all residents will be able to use their home broadband for both work, play, and without the capacity issues that some structures have experienced.
- Public policy references to broadband must be clear, accurate and consistent. An example of how complicated the broadband market is for consumers perfectly highlighted by 2019 manifestos talking to broadband which was: hyper-fast, superfast, full-fibre, fibre-optic, gigabit-capable, highspeed, base-level. It is very confusing and again residents don’t necessarily understand the difference. Cost of full fibre is definitely a barrier for businesses, as we found trying to promote the Gigabit voucher scheme (despite the fact some businesses have to go home to send big files) but competition will ultimately reduce cost thus remove this as a barrier.
- There is a need for ‘Broadband Champions’ of general ‘Digital Champions’ across the country. These could be community champions, Councillors, or volunteers who actively promote the up take up of broadband across their local areas. There should be incentive programmes – to encourage all demographics to be engaged, and involved. We need a grassroots programme – where local residents themselves will promote the merits and benefits of Gigabit broadband. Could have champions for all groups (young, elder, female, physically challenged, BME etc).
- Gainshare needs to be automatically built into any digital infrastructure programmes that have been publicly / part funded.
What will be the impact on individuals and communities whose broadband and mobile connectivity fails to keep pace with the rest of the country over the next 10 years? What is the link with other DCMS policy concerns, such as changing patterns in the consumption of digital media?
- There will be a digital divide in this country, unless this is addressed. With new 5G enabled devices costing in excess of £1000. With top line laptops and tablet devices costing similar prices. Those who are left behind with outdated technology, and slower speeds, they will not fully utilise the benefits that digital connectivity brings to individuals and communities.
- With digital software updates becoming more regular and important (to target cyber-crime and viruses). Those who don’t upgrade to the latest devices will be more vulnerable to cyber-crime – which may further isolate them digitally. Every time a major software provides an update – only the latest and recent devices are updates – many older devices are not supported – increasing the risk of cybercrime.
- As digital innovation increases – in health, retail, sports, and education – the latest apps, and software will require the latest devices, and latest connectivity to work in some instances (4G at a minimum). Many will miss out if they are not connected or up to date.
- Having the latest device, and fastest connectivity does not mean that residents will be able to utilise their devices. Digital up-skilling is required to allow local residents to fully utilise and understand how they can operate their devices. We cannot assume that residents fully know how to use their mobile phones, laptops or tablet devices. Digital illiteracy will be the biggest issue for communities across the country moving forward. DCMS needs to invest wholescale into providing accessible educational content (videos on YouTube for example), which educates and informs residents on how to use their devices. Local centres need to be enabled to allow local residents to learn how to use their devices etc.
How effectively do the different stakeholders (UK and devolved governments, local authorities, Ofcom, industry) work together in both the mobile and broadband sectors? How might these relationships be improved to support gigabit-capable roll-out?
- There is very little collaboration. Attempts have been made here in the West Midlands. As part of the BDUK Superfast Broadband programme in the Black Country – we brought together officers from across the 4 Local Authorities – and have worked in partnership for a number of years. Since the advent of the West Midlands Combined Authority, there has been some initially activity across the West Midlands – where officers from across the different local authorities have met to look at digital infrastructure. Since the creation of WM5G – there has been more activity in bringing together industry, DCMS, and MNO’s – however, this is often on a need to know basis – and not as open and transparent as could be.
- There is need for a Digital Infrastructure Council – which has representatives from all the West Midlands Local Authorities, Industry, WMCA, Ofcom and select MNO’s and Broadband providers. They can address the digital infrastructure needs more effectively if regional councils were set up.
- Local Authorities have / are identifying a Digital Infrastructure Champion and Co-ordinator and implementing culture change within their organisations. There is widespread acceptance now that recognises the benefits of futureproofed infrastructure, including 5G.