Levelling out the connectivity playing field in the UK

Levelling out the connectivity playing field in the UK

There are many societal benefits of connection, both economically and socially, and connectivity might just be the key to building a nationwide fightback after the pandemic set-back. Emmanuel Vella, VP, EMEA Broadband Networks at CommScope, discusses today’s state of play in terms of the digital divide, where we’re at in the UK with fibre and wireless connectivity in rural and hard-to-reach areas, and the technology operators should be turning towards to improve the speed and cost of rollouts.

Over the past year, the lines between ‘home’ and ‘office’ have become increasingly blurred due to the rise of remote working. Many of us have been shifted abruptly from our usual life patterns into something new and unfamiliar. Even as lockdowns are being lifted, many have been left feeling isolated and alone – especially those in rural and hard-to-reach areas.

While we are nearing a likely end of the government’s work from home guidance, it is clear that we will not all be going back to the office, all of the time, and that our reliance on newly remote services, such as banking and online shopping, isn’t going away any time soon. This shift towards a hybrid way of living and a ‘work from anywhere’ approach will only be successful if underpinned by connectivity for all.

Today, having access to reliable connectivity is the crucial key to help individuals, local economies and communities to truly thrive. From a FaceTime call with relatives to collaboration apps becoming a vital component among remote workforces, speedy and reliable broadband and wireless access is bridging the gap.

With the advent of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), its significance will only continue to grow, both from a consumer and business perspective. However, not all areas of the country have access to such reliable network coverage and disparities in fibre rollout continue to leave some rural communities offline and excluded from the benefits connectivity is bringing to the nation during these difficult times.

The geographical divide

The Web Foundation recently stated that over half the world is currently without Internet connection – a shocking fact given how integral it is to our day-to-day lives, with many now calling it a human right rather than a privilege.

Geographical variations in mobile connectivity across the UK are well documented; London, Yorkshire and the West Midlands all enjoying the most efficient 4G data services, while those in the North East of the country struggle with sporadic coverage. The amount of data being used each year is increasing significantly as people quickly become more reliant on fast connections to engage in society. As a result, poor coverage, exacerbated by the urban rural digital divide, limits the quality of life in rural areas.

A key factor holding back rural areas when it comes to accessing the Internet is the lack of a full fibre infrastructure in some of the UK’s hardest to reach areas. However, this is set to improve. Recently, Openreach announced plans to rollout its broadband network to 25 million UK premises by 2026 – a definite step in the right direction.

There is still much more work to be done when it comes to getting all areas of the country on a level playing field, as Ofcom’s recent research revealed that 1.5 million homes in the UK are still without efficient broadband. Now more than ever it is imperative that operators ensure these areas are not left behind so that people can stay connected to their loved ones, continue to work remotely and stay up to date with the latest developments from the government.

Connectivity: The enabler for so many

It is critical that everyone across the country has the same access to opportunities brought about by connectivity. While changes won’t happen overnight, small businesses in rural areas should eventually aspire to reach the same standards as their counterparts in major UK cities using 4G and 5G technologies. Such connectivity could ultimately be the difference between success and failure, particularly for growing businesses looking to reach global audiences.

The education sector is another that is enhanced by the benefits of connectivity and many schools and universities are now using a public cloud service for network and device management. The rise of remote learning across educational institutions has meant that students today are now reliant on their institution’s Intranet to access files, and therefore these methods of storing and accessing data are more crucial than ever. Many campuses deploy dedicated Wi-Fi infrastructures that include physical copper and fibre connectivity – and it is important that all campuses across the country are fitted with the best quality equipment once restrictions fully ease and we enter the new normal.

Care homes and hospices are the most pertinent beneficiaries of connectivity. The elderly were typically the most disconnected during the ‘old norm’ and COVID-19 restrictions have only made the challenge of isolation from family and loved ones even tougher. For those without reliable broadband, the possibility of a Zoom call with family might be heart-breakingly out of reach. 

Finally, the use of apps, such as the NHS app, to track people who have tested positive for COVID-19 has made connectivity not only a right but an imminent necessity for the easing of lockdown restrictions. In order for people to use these apps and ensure they’re effective, the majority of the population must have access to reliable and ever present wireless connectivity, regardless of their geographical location.

Closing the divide with technology

Delays in FTTH installations often occur in the last mile. That’s partially because traditional methods of placing and splicing fibre cables take time – especially due to the fact that splicing requires highly skilled labour, which can be hard to find. Luckily, there is a whole host of new streamlined and cost-effective solutions that operators can turn towards to improve the speed and cost of fibre rollouts, and therefore get all areas of the country onto a level playing field when it comes to connectivity.

To speed up installation time and reduce the overall amount and length of fibre placed, innovative service providers are transitioning to fibre indexing in their FTTH distribution networks. With this approach, connectorised cables and terminals are placed with the same components, daisy-chained together in a plug-and-play fashion. That way, the fibre cabling and integrated service terminals can be deployed quickly, more easily and with a lower cost of labour.

The past year has been a truly unprecedented time, posing challenges across all areas of society. As we move forward and restrictions continue to lift, connectivity might just end up being the foundation from which we build our nationwide fightback.

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