Collaborating and connecting to build the city of tomorrow

The UK Department of Transport (DfT) recently announced legislation that will limit the ability of utilities companies to install new infrastructure by means of excavation, in order to minimise the disruption to the travelling public. With fibre included in this, it’s likely that the proposals will have a significant impact on the way telcos have traditionally gone about expanding their fibre reach – forcing them to think outside the box when it comes to infrastructure planning.

Importantly, this is all happening while plans for developing smart cities are being realised. As we know, smart cities require vast amounts of complex infrastructure including additional fibre capacity to support 5G enablement and Internet of Things (IoT) developments. Not least because of the sheer amount of data that will have to be collected, analysed and sent to various public service bodies to enable advancements like autonomous vehicles and connected emergency services.

Telcos deploying fibre will need to be creative as they seek to provide smart city-enabling solutions, while taking into account new regulations about infrastructure installation that limits them to the pavements. They’ll have to look beyond traditional dig methods and instead focus on alternative fibre deployment methods, while considering the substantial financial costs they may incur as a result.

Challenges for telcos

DfT’s proposed legislation will present a unique challenge when it comes to installing network infrastructure. Primarily because of its suggestion that telcos install fibre in pavements, rather than roads.

Simply, there’s a finite amount of space where fibre can be laid in pavements. This is exacerbated in an urban environment like London, where pavement expansion to accommodate more space simply isn’t an option. Another consideration is depth. Following the Highways Authorities and Utilities regulations on minimum depths of all utility infrastructure installations, the risk of damage to existing infrastructure becomes greater.

The DfT and Highways Authorities positions are viable and understandable. The issue for those in telecommunications is that placing restrictions on the way we deploy fibre at this junction could further impede developments in IoT, 5G and other IoT applications such as autonomous vehicles. These technologies require copious amounts of fibre due to the amount of data they process and functions they enable. And it’s critical that these infrastructure projects aren’t hindered by red tape.

The question to the sector is how to find a path through these myriad issues that satisfies legislation and regulatory concerns, while still delivering the connectivity Britain needs.

Go underground to transform overground

Beyond rethinking where and when spades go in the ground, the new legislation will change the commercial structure of infrastructure projects. In short, cost and project timelines will put the onus on telcos and utility companies to collaborate. And it’s collaboration that offers us all a path to network improvement.

Our work with Thames Water is a prime example of this. The relationship enables SSE Enterprise Telecoms to lay fibre cabling within the London sewer network. This saves on costly and time-consuming digs and is even more secure due to how far below the surface the cabling sits. Lampposts are another example of street furniture that can be converted into an infrastructure host.

But collaboration doesn’t stop with utility and telecommunications companies. Indeed, the government itself is a crucial third party in how we work together to address our infrastructure challenges. After all, we all have a role to play in ensuring that our cities are equipped to become smart.

This is happening to some extent today. As we know, the UK government recently announced a £5bn investment as part of its full fibre pledge (also bringing the deployment date forward to 2025). Yet while it’s positive that the government is committed to making fibre readily available across the UK, the legislation we’re seeing is counterintuitive and may restrict further investment in the network.

The government should instead focus on the infrastructure, and in futureproofing it for an increased demand in fibre, through incentivising the private sector to commence building work. At present, the network isn’t set up to support the pledge. And we run the risk of never meeting those objectives if we restrict access and investment.

Helping the city to thrive

While finding alternative ways to deliver the infrastructure is positive, there is a large financial responsibility that comes with it, and a specialist skillset is needed to make it happen. This could restrict competition in the market, leading to higher prices and diminished demand, which isn’t what the government wants to achieve.

That being said, before smart cities and roads become commonplace, a lot of work needs to be done on the UK’s fibre infrastructure to prepare for the capacity demand. This is fundamental to the UK being at the forefront of digital innovation, building a reputation that will offer businesses a reason to invest and spur on the digital economy. Any decision that could impact that becoming a reality, such as limiting digging to pavements, needs to be properly considered so that investment in the UK is not restricted.

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