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Winning the battle for bandwidth in tomorrow’s city centres

The UK is likely to see a ten-fold rise in mobile data usage over the next five years, fuelled by an insatiable consumer appetite for on demand video services. As data streams swell into data floods, fulfilling that demand becomes essential to attracting investment and remaining competitive. 

With analysts predicting an exponential increase in demand for wireless data services, delivering future-proofed network infrastructure has emerged as a vital element in city planning.

Data consumption in Western Europe is set to rise from around 1.9GB per month to 18GB per month.

Millennials not only represent the workforce of tomorrow, they also represent a new generation of digital natives with no experience of a world without YouTube. Talk might be cheap, as the saying goes, but overuse of mobile data is not, which is why so many millennials – especially the 35% under the age of 25 – believe that paying for internet access is a thing of the past.

The way to avoid exorbitant mobile data fees is to switch to WiFi, but unless you have a serious caffeine addiction and are willing to sit in Starbucks or Costa all day, accessing consistent public WiFi remains a challenge for most. According to the Digital High Street 2020 Report, nearly 43% of UK consumers are frustrated by the lack of free, public WiFi networks.

Around one in four people (24%) would be more likely to stay longer in a town or city centre that offered access to free WiFi.

It’s clear that to attract digitally-engaged customers, especially the affluent under-35 millennial segment, city centres have to meet this demand for always-online connectivity. However, to be viable, free-to-use public WiFi is dependent on the quality of its underlying broadband infrastructure.

Since November 2016, residents, businesses and visitors in Edinburgh have been able to enjoy a new free-to-access public WiFi network across the city centre. It’s the result of a 10-year WiFi concession, agreed with intechnologyWiFi that has seen Council-owned street furniture made accessible for the new WiFi network.

In addition to providing opportunities for local advertisers to reach out to consumers directly, the new infrastructure has also helped to boost capacity on the existing 4G mobile data network and paves the way for the roll out of a future 5G mobile data network. So how has this been possible?

UK’s largest Gigabit City

The answer lies beneath the pavements and roads of Scotland’s capital. Thanks to a collaboration between digital infrastructure builder CityFibre and local provider Commsworld, catalysed by the City of Edinburgh Council and driven by demand from local businesses, a groundbreaking 150km pure fibre optic network now criss-crosses Edinburgh. The resulting network establishes the city as the UK’s largest Gigabit City.

“It is a real coup for businesses and local services,” said James McClafferty, CityFibre’s Head of Regional Development in Scotland. “Since we launched the Edinburgh CORE network last summer we’ve delivered a truly transformational project.

“Future-proofing is key to all our Gigabit City deployments.” James continues. “When we build network, we are not just taking a single fibre into each site, we are laying down cables containing thousands of fibres, enough to meet the future demands of the entire city. What is more, with each new customer connection, we are extending the reach of our network to address even more sites across the city.”

"With the fibre network now in place, we're seeing the number of interested businesses increase rapidly, attracted by potential speeds of anywhere up to 40Gbps," adds Andy Arkle, commercial director, Commsworld.

That offer was further boosted in early 2017 with the opening of a 50-mile long dark fibre span linking the recently launched Fortis datacentre in North Lanarkshire and the Pulsant’s datacentre in western Edinburgh. This offers operating speeds of up to 100Gb/s between the two linked data centres. Businesses with offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow can now enjoy some of the fastest data connections in the UK.

Transforming education

The project started as a more humble installation, resulting from the UK Government’s Super Connected Cities programme. In 2014, when Commsworld first joined forces with CityFibre to deliver what was then a 40km-long network, The City of Edinburgh Council identified an opportunity to expand the network. A vision emerged to connect every school, library and Council-run site to the new fibre optic network.

 “We wanted a network that could meet future need, enabling staff to be more mobile, paving the way for more online services,” explained Ritchie Somerville, Innovation and Futures Manager at The City of Edinburgh Council. “Edinburgh has always been at the vanguard of digital learning across our schools estate and we wanted to support that journey.”

The result is an education estate in which all secondary schools have access to a 1Gbps network, while all primary schools can access bandwidths of 100Mbps. Each system has full redundancy, with at least two fibres going into each school site. All Council libraries, a focus for community activity, are now on a 100Mbps network and Council offices across Edinburgh are also connected to the Edinburgh CORE network.

“We believe that Edinburgh now has the fastest school estate in the UK” says Ritchie Somerville. “Not only will our high schools be running on a 1Gbps service, they can dial that up to 10Gbps relatively easily in the future,” adds Ritchie. “That additional connectivity and flexibility is paving the way for the digital classroom of the future.”

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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