Retro-fitting councils around the 21st century

By Martin Ford | 04 December 2019

How will 5G affect your authority and your communities? That was the question put to representatives of local authorities from around the country at a round table discussion following a revealing survey carried out by The MJ and BT.

Around 56% of councils that responded said their senior management teams had yet to formally discuss the impact of 5G on their authority, with discussions expected to be held imminently.

Just 44% of respondents said their senior management teams have already been discussing the impact.

So just how ready is the sector for the arrival of the new technology?

The survey found councils anticipating the greatest changes in the fields of IT, environmental services, regeneration, housing and social services.

The findings were reflected among those present at the discussion.

One of the most apparent advantages is increasing opportunities for effective remote working for council officers.

A speaker said: ‘It would enable staff to work in a very different way with high-speed connectivity to work from anywhere in the district.

‘We are wedded to offices and traditional structures [but] it depends on getting connectivity in rural areas.’

The benefits also extend to residents, improving speed and ease of access to information and services.

The same speaker also pointed out the benefits of connecting people with their communities.

‘Some think people sitting in bedrooms in front of a screen is a bad thing, but it can be a lifeline for some people,’ they added.

Another said: ‘The challenge is that you get people operating in silos. You can use digital to bring them together.’

One council representative said: ‘We put residents in control of their own data.’

A delegate told the meeting: ‘The opportunities are potentially huge around health and care, and for people to take greater control over their lives. We are doing a lot of work with our local health trust.’

Another saw benefits for enabling independent living: ‘Sometimes people can be supported through technology, not just by someone helping them,’ they added.

Further afield, councils saw more benefits for the wider community. One speaker said: ‘We are a county of small businesses, very entrepreneurial – and it would be a tremendous opportunity to operate their businesses in a different way.’

Another added: ‘It will attract outside investment and development – it’s incredibly exciting.

However, there was a note of caution from some in the room, as one person pointed out: ‘Digital poverty becomes a real risk as technology develops.’

Another said: ‘Estate agents are using fast fibre as a selling point – soon it will be 5G. People are anxious about being left behind, even if they are light years off needing a super-fast connection.’

A key finding of the survey was that just 40% of respondents said they had no idea if 5G would be introduced in their area, while 38% thought it might be within the next two years.

It is being rolled out in six cities this year, with another 10 to follow next year.

One speaker said: ‘I’m frustrated the start happened, as always, with well-connected urban centres.

I wish something could be built from the bottom up, starting with a rural perspective in mind. We want the data everyone else has to improve services.’

There was something of a divide in the room between urban and rural authorities, with the latter being vocal about issues with coverage.

‘As a small, rural authority there are blackspots, some large, in the district,’ another speaker said.

However, another delegate saw it as a chance to put things right: ‘“Not-spots” is a hamper to the conversation. This ought to be the start of a transformation, it’s an opportunity to take a new approach – a blank piece of paper – to talk about how people connect with services.’

Indeed, a deal is expected in the New Year that would see the Government matching an investment of around £500m by mobile operators O2, Three, Vodafone and BT-owned EE to ensure 95% of the UK is covered by 4G by 2025.

‘We have been transforming Victorian institutions into a modern setting,’ added one speaker. ‘We need to shift that paradigm to retro-fitting councils around the 21st century, and take the opportunity to change the role technology plays.’

Another pointed out: ‘We missed the boat with 4G, we need to get ahead of the curve with 5G.’

Speakers recognised ‘resistance to masts going in’, including instances of town councils adopting blanket opposition to planning applications.

One delegate said: ‘We have an active anti-5G group worried about the impact of 5G waves that becomes a challenge for the council, for people to see the economic benefits.’

Ministers are reportedly to write to planning authorities about the issue, but delegates thought councils have a role in swaying public opinion.

‘People don’t tend to believe the private sector in the same way they do a local council,’ one said.

There were different views aired over the roles councils should play in encouraging take-up of 5G

One speaker said: ‘It’s difficult to understand where it might go. Let’s step away and let the market develop.’

However, more of those present favoured going further, with one asking: ‘What powers do we require to step in where the market fails? How do we use it to work with residents?’

Another added: ‘If we leave it to the market, the same places will take advantage.’

One delegate urged: ‘We should be looking at it as an infrastructure investment. We need to take a more interventionist approach.

‘I see 5G contributing to becoming a zero-carbon economy. The only way to meet our commitments is by embracing every new technology, whether that be hydrogen fuels or 5G.’

The MJ/BT round table attendees

Michael White – BT

Joseph Quinn – Wakefield Council

Jamie Appleton – Wakefield Council

John Metcalfe – Isle of Wight Council

Shaun Scrutton – Rochford BC

Aidan Rave – Formerly South Kesteven DC

Ian Fychte – North Kesteven DC

Robin Tuddenham – Calderdale MBC

Sarah Norman – Barnsley MBC

Helen Briggs – Rutland CC

Heather Jameson – The MJ (chair)

BT COMMENT

Simon Haston, Chief Technology and Information Officer within the Regions and Devolved Government department at BT, comments on some of the findings revealed in the recent survey and subsequent round table debate hosted at the SOLACE Conference.

The survey conducted by The MJ and BT found that 44% of council directors had formally discussed the potential impact of 5G. This is encouraging and reflective of the seismic changes that have occurred in the last decade. Seven years ago, when 4G launched, it is unlikely it would have been discussed in the same way. As the mobile world has moved from a thing of wonder, to an essential in our daily lives, 5G brings limitless potential to the lives of residents in every local authority area.

Connectivity is at last ahead of the game. 5G combines gigabit speeds with almost zero latency. This opens a world of opportunities and local authorities have a critical role, which manifests in three ways. Firstly, local authorities can utilise 5G to spearhead new services. Secondly, 5G can enable local economies. Lastly, local authorities should deploy existing assets to attract and promote further investment in 5G for public services.

The introduction of 5G will enable a world of new services and products. This should be tested through rapid 5G use cases. These should be simple, delivered within months and set within a strategic context. What 5G enables will be shaped by the imagination of those in frontline services, who understand the needs of their users. For example, BT have worked in partnership with University Hospital Birmingham to run 5G enabled use cases within health and social care, demonstrating remote diagnostics, which could help alleviate the burden on NHS resources.

Local authorities also need to consider 5G when designing and implementing network connectivity for the future. 5G sits within a broader connectivity portfolio and offers newfound developments for both urban and rural economic regeneration, therefore this design must be aligned to place-based outcomes.

Finally, local authorities must become 5G pioneers. Some authorities have set up dedicated teams to prepare for the introduction of 5G. These teams aim to transcend barriers surrounding wayleaves, planning, executive support, marketing and public assurance. Partnership and openness will be critical.

5G will not happen overnight, of course. It will take time. But delivering great use cases, taking a place-based approach and putting the teams in place dedicated to easing delivery, will make transformation a lot faster.

BT would be delighted to discuss opportunities for digital transformation with any local authority.

Contact Michael White in the first instance at: michael.white@bt.com or visit https://business.bt.com/public-sector/local-government/

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