The role of councils in driving the rollout of superfast broadband infrastructure is derived from their general duty to promote wellbeing as well as their role to lead local communities. This has led to councils taking innovative approaches to stimulating investment where the commercial market hasn’t delivered.
Even where councils aren’t directly involved in delivery programmes, in their role as planning and highways authorities they have a vital practical part to play in ensuring that existing rollout work is done efficiently and that new developments meet emerging standards for connectivity. It also varies depending on the type of council taking the action:
• Education – ensuring that schools are connected, using schools as hubs for full-fibre connections – county councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan and London boroughs.
• Libraries – similarly, ensuring that libraries are connected and can be used as hubs for full-fibre connections – county councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan and London boroughs.
• Transport – ensuring that traffic works are co-ordinated with plans to roll out digital connectivity infrastructure – county councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan and London boroughs.
• Housing – ensuring that all new builds are properly connected – district councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan and London boroughs.
• Planning – ensuring that planning policies are sympathetic to the needs of companies rolling out digital infrastructure and barriers are removed from the planning process. Also ensuring that developers are considering how best a new development can be provided with excellent mobile and broadband connectivity and the effect it might have on other houses’ connectivity ie a tall building blocking a signal to other homes – district councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan and London boroughs.
• Asset use – council assets such as buildings, ducts, street furniture and CCTV networks can be used to host electronic communications network equipment.
One example of where councils can help make a difference is via their roles as planning authorities. In recent years, it has become apparent that the standard of digital connectivity provided to some new build homes is below par and doesn’t reflect the Government’s national ambition to roll out world class digital infrastructure across the country. Without future-proofed full fibre being installed as standard, residents are unable to feel the benefits of decent connectivity such as the ability to work from home or video call loved ones.
Many councils have tried to tackle the problem by amending local planning policies in line with previous Government guidance, to make clear to developers the local expectation that all developments are adequately connected. Despite this, some councils have faced legal challenges from developers and in one successful appeal by a developer, the Planning Inspectorate ruled “the provision of broadband and telecommunications would not be necessary to make the development acceptable in planning terms.”
To counter this issue, the Government is currently considering enacting legislation to obligate developers to install future-proof full fibre broadband into new homes. Until it is passed through Parliament, councils have a limited ability to force developers to ensure properties are connected. Despite this, it is still worth engaging developers about digital connectivity – both fixed and mobile.
There is a growing trend amongst infrastructure suppliers who serve new developments to ask for an exclusivity agreement on housing developments. This would prohibit any other infrastructure supplier accessing the site during the build stage and would mean any other suppliers would need to wait until all the roads had been adopted and any highways restrictions were lifted from the development before they could install infrastructure. This is usually two years after the development is finished but can be much longer. The best outcome for residents is for all infrastructure suppliers to be allowed access to new build sites while they are being built, to maximise choice for the end consumer.
- Questions to ask developers
• Are you installing gigabit broadband to your premises?
• Are you talking to the owners of neighbouring buildings to see if you can act as a hub for gigabit broadband?
• Have you engaged Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) on how they will supply mobile connectivity to your development and/the potential effect of your development on other areas mobile connectivity ie might a tall building block mobile signal for a community?
• Are you making your new premises available to MNOs to install mobile base stations?
• Will the design of your new building restrict mobile signals inside?
• Are you planning to use 5G technology to install Internet of Things sensors to make your building more efficient?
• Have you asked your new tenants about their broadband connectivity demands?
• Is the provider connecting your development doing so on an exclusivity basis meaning other providers can’t come in an connect the development? Do you recognise this presents a poor retail offer for your future residents?
• Has the developer explore the shadowing effects of the building, particularly if it’s high rise, affecting the signal that other residents will be able to receive?
Many councils across the country have taken proactive action to improve connectivity for their residents:
• Cornwall – Superfast Cornwall has built a fibre-based network covering 90 per cent of premises which are now able to connect to superfast broadband speeds of over 24 Mbps.
• Essex – Superfast Essex has delivered superfast broadband to 110,000 homes and businesses.
• Milton Keynes – Partnering with Vodafone and CityFibre to install full-fibre broadband.
• York City Council – the UK’s first Gigabit City.
• Rutland – the Digital Rutland programme connecting more than 11,000 premises to superfast and full-fibre broadband.
• North Yorkshire – A partnership between North Yorkshire County Council and BT.
More information can be found about this in a roundup of government guidance to help councils overcome issues relating to broadband rollout published on the Government’s Digital Connectivity Portal.
- Developing a digital infrastructure strategy
A council’s digital connectivity strategy should explain how encouraging and facilitating the deployment of full fibre and mobile networks can help local communities and help the council deliver its wider ambitions. It will also describe how digital connectivity could help to boost economic growth, digital inclusion and deliver a range of benefits including the more effective provision of local public services. Things that it could include are:
• Identifying a senior leader to provide leadership, engage with all stakeholders, and be a single point of contact for all companies and community groups. Most councils who have set up broadband delivery groups have placed an officer in charge reporting to a member of the executive or a committee chair.
• Ensuring that different departments collaborate with each other to make it easier for broadband companies and mobile network providers to install and upgrade their kit. This also applies to co-ordinating with utility companies so that street works can be combined with the deployment of fibre infrastructure. The Government calls this ‘barrier-busting and has a ‘Street Works Toolkit’29 which has guidance on how to do this and some case studies of best practice from councils.
• Setting up partnerships with other local public sector bodies such as the NHS and to aggregate demand by combining connectivity needs when entering into procurements – Gloucestershire County Council and the county’s clinical commissioning group have done this.
• Clarifying who does what in two-tiered councils and arranging committees to ensure the work gets done – the Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire example shows how this can be done.
• Exploring different models of collaboration with broadband and mobile companies to ensure that local communities can feed their requirements back to the industry and to enable a collaborative approach between councils, communities, local businesses and the companies.
• Working out how to make council buildings and assets available to companies rolling out fixed-line or mobile networks. This includes mapping council assets and working out what to charge companies for access. North Yorkshire County Council decided to give companies installing mobile bases stations in areas with poor connectivity a seven year business rate holiday. The Government advice on this includes:
◦ advice on mapping public sector assets
◦ advice on different commercial models
◦ an overview of access agreements
◦ councils are also encouraged to consider how the Government’s Digital Infrastructure Toolkit can be applied to their buildings.
• Training officers and elected members on issues relevant to the provision of digital connectivity.
- Broadband and mobile companies - questions to ask
• Are you adhering to the Code of Best Practice on Mobile Network Development in England?
• Have you consulted clearly and properly with all the residents and businesses in my ward?
• Do you have a Regional Affairs Manager with strategic oversight of broadband roll out in my area that I could talk to?
• Will you respond to enquiries within ten working days?
• Have you held professional development workshops on technological and other developments for local planning authority officers and elected members?
• Is your coverage map accurate, and if not, why not?
• Will you be reinstating all roads and pavements etc to their previous state?
• How can I help you ensure that the council is dealing efficiently with your planning applications?
• Are you sharing your site and other infrastructure with other operators?
• Will you ensure that equipment is sympathetically designed and camouflaged where appropriate?
• Do you meet the Ofcom codes of conduct for broadband speed?
• How can the council help you rollout infrastructure more quickly?
• Are your rollout plans commercially viable?
• Do you have a problem gaining access to all the properties you need? Can the council help you with wayleaves?
- Utility companies - questions to ask
• Do you have a policy or procedure for informing other utility companies and broadband/ mobile companies when you are digging up roads to allow them to install digital connectivity infrastructure at the same time?
• Do you have a relationship with the council’s barrier busting team?
• Would it be a cost saving to join forces with a broadband or mobile company to let them install digital connectivity at the same time as you carry out traffic works? • What do you see as the main barriers to sharing traffic works with other utility companies?
• What benefits are there for you in making your infrastructure available for sharing?
• What additional incentives would you like to see in place to encourage more sharing?