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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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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