Overcoming digital inequalities in the UK’s largest cities

Business Insights

The UK Government has pledged to address some of the nation’s regional imbalances to ensure that businesses individuals and indeed towns and cities have the same opportunities in what is referred to as the “Levelling up Agenda.” Part of this scheme addresses discrepancies in regional building programmes and transport networks and steps than can be taken to even things out. Communications is also very much at the heart of the agenda as it is integral to all things IoT, smart technologies and automation. For this reason, Gearoid, Collins, Chief Commercial Officer, at Vilicom, providers of mobile connectivity systems for inbuilding coverage and private mobile 5G networks, in investigating the state of play in some of the country’s regional cities, starting with Manchester.

Manchester has strong claim to position itself as UKs best alternative to London for foreign direct investment. There is significant infrastructural investment at a level well above other cities outside of London. The reasons for this are obvious and include an economy worth £60 Bn, a population of 7m people within 1hours drive, an airport that serves 200 cities and 27m people annually, a young population with 100,000 students, 1,500 private businesses and, residential property prices are 40% below those in London.

The Construction industry there is also booming despite delays and supply chain issues brought about by the pandemic and Brexit. An array of ambitious development projects intended to rejuvenate the city are now kicking off in earnest. One of these includes the long-awaited and much anticipated St Michael’s Tower, a £120million mixed-use facility backed by former footballer, Garry Neville. Other high-profile projects include converting the former Granada TV studios into an international music venue, refurbishing the Grade 2 listed Ancoats Dispensary building into residential dwellings and developing a large green space in the city centre (Mayfield Park) that will also comprise two large commercial buildings and a multi-story carpark. Manchester has also secured £69.5million to augment its transport network as part of the “Transforming Cities Fund”, intended to enhance productivity by investing in public and sustainable transport infrastructure in English cities.

Key to the successful rollout of all these projects is reliable mobile coverage and full fibre broadband. Historically one of the least digitized sectors, construction companies are having to embrace IoT-based technologies for productivity, efficiency, and profitability reasons. Shared transport networks, on the other hand, not only require seamless 5G for interconnectivity between vehicles and roadside furniture, they require seamless 4G coverage to facilitate online payments at EV charge points, not to mention public safety, if they are to be fit for purpose.

Construction, however, is one of the most poorly served industries when it comes to reliable mobile coverage. Building sites are either blighted by connectivity issues caused by deep foundations, surrounding tall buildings, industrial scaffolding, and the high quotas of raw materials, which interfere with signal transmissions, or being completely off grid.

And to complicate things further, the connectivity requirements of large-scale developments such as those going on in Manchester are constantly moving goal posts. What is deemed sufficient one week quickly becomes obsolete as the project advances and exterior frameworks arefilled with glass and/or metal facades, held together with reinforced concrete and lined with specialist insulation products, presenting even more challenges.

Another hurdle to overcome is the sheer number of devices in constant use by people and machines. Not so very long-ago mobile connectivity requirements were limited to basic services utilised during breakout periods. Modern construction sites are driven by tech and the cloud and any loss of service and/or latency issues cause delays and interruptions, which impact progress further down the line.

Seamless mobile coverage is not only essential for operability and performance. Ubiquitous mobile coverage is becoming increasingly integral to safety critical communications as the UK’s emergency services network (ESN) is upgraded from TETRA to 4G. Whilst the new network will permit the use of digital technologies like video and body cameras, the downside is its shorter propagation rates. What this means in practical terms is that without an assured 4G signal, emergency response teams will not be able to effectively manage an incident and the ability to dial 999 could be compromised. The buck doesn’t stop there either. 4G is integral to machines safety because the trigger mechanism for onsite equipment such as moving scaffolding or driverless vehicles is SMS. Unless steps are taken to guarantee mobile coverage in these situations, construction companies could find themselves culpable of health and safety breaches.

Such is the scale of many inner-city developments, they warrant investment in private mobile networks. Those that are cloud-based are best, so minimal infrastructure is needed at ground level, and they can easily be reconfigured in line with coverage requirements. Having total network control on a large construction site would assure uninterrupted coverage for digitized technologies whilst also guaranteeing that health and safety regulations are adhered to. Once a building project has been completed, reliable mobile connectivity is still needed, not only to attract would-be tenants, but to enable smart lighting, smart heating/cooling systems for sustainability reasons.

There are many ways to improve mobile coverage depending on the building type/size and services needed. These including Small Cell, DAS and mobile repeaters, however the means of delivering connectivity has changed significantly of late with cloud-based technologies now offering more cost and space efficient solutions. Facilities managers and building owners, however, are not telecoms engineers, so assistance is needed on selecting a solution best suited to a building’s particular requirements because it is not a straightforward process.

One’s thing for sure, mobile coverage is something that the construction and transport industries can ill afford to ignore, as it will be integral to smart city, smart mobility and unmanned traffic management systems. A bigger concern to these industries right now is the speed at which telecoms infrastructures can be rolled out to said industries and the associated costs involved and this is where support is needed.