Local government must lead the drive to expand superfast broadband connectivity throughout the UK

image by russelldavies on flickr

This article was first published in the PPP Journal. Thanks to Chris Conder for some of the initial inspiration.

Towards the end of last year, Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, launched Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) – a £530m initiative aimed at supporting universal internet coverage through community involvement and private sector investment.

“Our goal is simple,” said the minister, “within this parliament we want Britain to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe.” This target must be met if we are to see the renaissance in small business and hi-tech industry the government craves. In this, local government has a pivotal role to play.

If lessons are to be learnt from the past, it is that big, centralised, framework procurement processes don’t work as well as they first promise. Rory Stewart MP – who’s leading the drive for improved internet access in rural areas – has advised government away from the ‘one size fits all’ solution.

The difficulty is that big, centralised, framework procurement processes tend to look better from the Treasury’s perspective.

But the expansion and improvement of superfast broadband (and the exciting 4G mobile internet expected to emerge sometime around 2013/14 must be a story about community pressure and local solutions.

This is why Stewart recently called on the government to quadruple investment in superfast broadband to £2.1bn, the MP for Penrith and the Border declaring: “Making such an investment would be extremely commercially viable. And in the long-term we would see a 20 year return. If we are able to make that case, then the economy stands a good chance for growth.”

In Lincoln, North Kesteven District Council wanted “to work with communities and businesses on initiatives to improve digital connectivity” and, accordingly, initiated a conversation to help it identify the digital needs of the area.

North Kesteven is not alone in such ambitions. Rural authorities in Cumbria, Herefordshire, Surrey, Suffolk and North Yorkshire are all piloting broadband projects that focus on engagement and open, collaborative decision-making on tackling broadband ‘not-spots’.

“We must not underestimate the impact that securing this [broadband] investment will have on local business growth, improving educational attainment and removing a major block to public service transformation in Suffolk,” believes Councillor Mark Bee, Leader of Suffolk County Council.

These councils are all accepting risk by going after individual models. Central government must join them and resist the temptation to spread this £530m too thinly across too large an area.

Some of the local pilots will obviously fall short of their ambitions – but this will provide valuable educational material that can be shared, learnt from and then re-mixed by other authorities.

Councils must also be much more flexible – superfast broadband and a better connected population doesn’t just help enterprise, it is also increasingly becoming essential for public services as we see the rise in telehealth and tele-education.

Councils must therefore work closely over coming years with residents and businesses in order to best respond to these localised needs and nuanced technological requirements. As Bee says, “Suffolk’s Local Broadband Plan is an example of what can be achieved in partnership between public, private and voluntary sector organisations”.

But this isn’t all just about technology. Other authorities, where connectivity is more assured, are working hard to tailor creative solutions by working with digital champions from the community. Martha Lane Fox’s Race Online project has identified digitally-minded leaders who can help drive local innovation and boost public service productivity.

Natasha Innocent from Race Online spoke recently at an event I was organising. The work they are doing in Liverpool, supporting its aspirations to become a ‘networked city’, is worth exploration.

“Over 1,000 digital champions were recruited over the Give an Hour weekend of 29th-30th October,” reveals Innocent. “The network is a broad one and we will be working with Liverpool over the next six months to learn lessons on how to ensure the network remains active and engaged.”

Another case study is provided by Wandsworth. Silicon junction – a play on silicon valley and silicon roundabout – is a loose, agile network of local creative businesses that occasionally collaborate to pitch for high-end contracts usually too large to approach individually.

As with Liverpool, in Wandsworth broadband speed is fine. What those involved with silicon junction are lobbying for instead is an easing of visa restrictions for foreign skilled workers and for the council to make more buildings in the borough available on short-term leases to start-ups to encourage growth.

Obviously the first of these is a massive national policy issue, but the reshaping of lease conditions is something that local government could look to act upon tomorrow.

So whilst the renaissance in small business and hi-tech industry requires technological infrastructure, Liverpool and Wandsworth show that there are also socioeconomic and bureaucratic barriers that are potentially restricting growth.

Even if the government was ticking all of these boxes, however, would the transformation be quick enough to keep up with the pace of technological innovation? While the industry and nation watches and waits for blanket broadband coverage and 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE), in the meantime data usage on mobile handsets is surging ahead.

Neil Prior, Head of the Local Government Futures Forum at O2, says: “In the third quarter of 2011, nine out of 10 new contract handsets purchased were smartphones, so what local government needs to determine is how best to use this medium to communicate, in parallel with the emerging broadband infrastructure.

“One of the priorities for 2012 is to work closely with local government to identify how we can better engage the customer using the myriad apps that are now available on smartphones.”

This evolution looks set to increase – especially with regards to local government. As we identify in our recent report ‘Going where the eyeballs are’, the current momentum of the web is very much with the local. Initiatives like Foursquare, O2 Priority Moments, FixMyStreet and even Mumsnet are about connecting people with place, often with where they are right now.

The case for local approaches to broadband and 4G investment is clear. With this £530m, government should empower local authorities with the option to make finance facilities available specifically for communities to move ahead with their own initiatives when and where possible.

These genuinely localised pilots will allow for many more enterprise zones and silicon junctions to pop-up, which in years to come will pay dividends to the authority and the British economy as a whole.

    1. Paul Nash says:

      I share John’s view. I know and respect the officers who are working away to deliver the local broadband plan and that, in itself, is part of the problem. The plan is being delivered “to” the people “for” the people. The missing word is “with”. Ask a local authority to deliver a network and they will deliver you a local authority network, it’s what they do. This demands something more, it demands a solution that will deliver community networks, networks for regeneration, networks for learning, networks for health, networks for entrepreneurs and so on; that’s not what local authorities do.

      Local authorities are in a key position to be anchors in this whole process but that doesn’t mean that they have to own the solution. I’ve seen it fail; a local authority solution which communites can share. I’m sure others have as well – how often have you heard “we’ll use the school’s network and ‘plug in’ to that”. It doesn’t work because it wasn’t designed to work that way. So what do we do? We design for outcomes, we say what we want it to deliver and then we let somebody else own it. It cuts both ways, if communities decide to do their own thing, that’s fine, but they have to have that strategic link with everything else, they can’t stand alone.

      The problem now is that the government has been forced to put a time line in place and all of the time that’s been wasted talking to the ususal suspects and sitting round the big table will not deliver the outcome based procurement that we need. So of course local government has a key role, and they will hold the budget, but it’s time to stand up from the table and get out there and start doing “with”.

    2. John Popham says:

      It gives me no pleasure to say this, and I must stress that I know and respect loads of people in local government who are working hard with the best intentions, but people cannot wait for the plans of local government in this respect to come to fruition. My Can’t Get Online Week tour (
      http://johnpopham.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/cant-get-online-week-some-first-reflections/) showed that individuals, communities and businesses are suffering now due to lack of rural broadband. This is precisely why some people have stopped waiting and launched initiatives such as B4rn (http://www.b4rn.org.uk). Ultimately, it is people, communities and social enterprises who will solve their problems, and local (and central) government should get behind their efforts 

      1. Anonymous says:

        We started talking to our county council years ago, and we got them ‘engaged’. They then went off and talked to BT, who I imagine said something along the lines of ‘ignore the yoghurt knitters, we are the experts, we can deliver you a solution, we have been doing this for years, we have the infrastructure and can deliver ‘superfast’ without digging up the streets’ bla bla.
        Our county council then decided to ignore us, the grassroots people, the ones who have been working with people and networks for years, and decided to throw our existing schools network and any funding into the pot but will only allow companies with a turnover of over £100 million to tender. That’s us out then. That is why we are doing B4RN, not because we want to, but because we have to. If we wait for our council we’ll be waiting for infinity, because we are only going to be offered satellites or BET. We use satellites now. We use our own wifi networks now. We want the job doing right, and doing properly. We want beyond infinity. A truly futureproof solution that will grow as the community does. As me gran used ter say: ‘ If tha want’s a job doin right lass its best ter do it thysel’
        and she was right. We’ll build our own network and we will all reap the benefits. Shares are on offer now, and the sooner folk buy em the sooner we’ll start digging.

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