If there is one lesson learned from the pandemic it is that without digital technology society could never have adapted to the new world of home-based working caused by lockdowns.
The virus also highlighted the maxim that necessity is the mother of invention by compelling citizens to adapt to the new environment in weeks, accelerating change processes that were expected to take months and even years, especially in the public sector.
The transformation, and for once this is not an exaggeration, does not however end when the last vaccine is injected into the last arm and the world returns to a semblance of normality. Society has grown too used to the benefits that fast digital technology has delivered to want to return to the old ways. The pressure is on to ensure even better connectivity so citizens can enjoy the improved services this delivers from home-working and online medical appointments to virtual learning and smart cities.
Connectivity however needs infrastructure, and the government body tasked pre-pandemic with delivering superfast broadband to the UK is Building Digital UK (BDUK), a directorate in the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sports. Its chief executive, Raj Kalia, was one of three speakers at a recent webinar organised by The MJ and BT which looked at delivering better connected services as part of the reset and rebuild agenda. We were also joined by Tracey Lee, chief executive of Plymouth City Council and Fotis Karonis, CTIO for BT’s Enterprise unit who gave their views on how we can move forward, using connectivity to deliver more for citizens.
Mr Kalia, the first speaker at the webinar, has worked for BDUK for three years. BDUK is currently investing to provide superfast broadband coverage to as many premises as possible beyond the 95% level achieved in December 2017, piloting a way to provide gigabit-capable broadband to the hard-to-reach places in the UK through its Rural Gigabit Connectivity programme and stimulating private investment in gigabit-capable connections through its UK Fibre programme.
He commented: ‘The past few months have been transformational. Who would have thought we would all be working from home and doing it seamlessly. By and large most people have managed to adapt to this new way of working. But it has accentuated the digital divide. If you haven’t got great connectivity then you’re even more aware of it now.’
Recalling how the pandemic has changed his working life Mr Kalia said: ‘I used to spend a lot of time on the train from Manchester. Since last March that stopped. Lockdown has changed a lot of the thinking. But it hasn’t stopped us carrying on and not stopped what we have to do to deliver gigabit broadband across the country.’ He added: ‘We’ve thought about our structure and invested in growing our teams and will grow to around 300 staff in coming years, doubling our field teams. We’ll have the country split into four regions and we’ll have more people connected to more local authorities.’
Each region has a head of regional delivery reporting directly to the UK gigabit programme director and is divided further into nine areas, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, North West and North East, Central West and Central East, South West and South East. Each will have an area delivery lead reporting into the head of region who will live and work in their area.
He added: ‘Our ambition has not changed. We have said we will invest £5bn in the final 20% to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to the hardest to reach parts of the country. Our minimum commitment is to deliver 85% UK coverage for gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 and we still have ambitions to go much faster than that. We are working with the industry and if it has evidence that we can go faster the Treasury has said we can knock on their door to get more capital funding to deliver these projects.’
Mr Kalia stressed the importance of BDUK’s relationship with local government. A consultation has been launched on the draft procurement strategy for the UK gigabit programme. He explained at the webinar: ‘The superfast programme is what defined the relationship with local government in that we were both match funding our projects to deliver the final 20% and more and the contracts were broadly operated by local authorities. But that relationship is evolving and our products are evolving too.’
The mantra is centrally procure, locally deliver. An ‘outside in’ approach aims to ensure that gigabit-capable broadband can be delivered to premises in the final 20% along with the rest of the UK.
The big challenge is getting connectivity to rural areas. Mr Kalia explained: ‘We are ramping up on the shared rural network which is delivering 4G connectivity across the UK and making sure we have 95% coverage, and that allows us at BDUK to have a very different conversation with all the local authorities. We used to talk just about the superfast programme but now we can talk about the UK gigabit programme and the UK mobile programme and how to deliver a rounded delivery solution across both fixed and mobile.’
As for the future he concluded: ‘This programme is about levelling up to deliver to all parts of the country.’
The webinar’s second speaker, Tracey Lee, gave a local perspective on the digital roll-out, outlining her council’s ambitious digital programme wrapped up in its Plymouth Plan 2014-2034. Marine technology is important for the port city and Plymouth Sound is one of the world’s largest natural harbours so Smart Sound has been developed, which she called ‘5G on the water.’ She added: ‘We’re using digital to achieve Plymouth’s Net Zero commitment by the early 2030s with support for primary care through e-consult and telehealth and single patient records, while in education and skills children can attend school virtually.’
Ms Lee said the pre-COVID challenges remain the same but the pandemic accelerated the council’s digital plans. Pre-virus the council had procured its government-funded full fibre network, piloted 5G applications, set up a shared IT company with the health sector, created a shared data master set and laid out a target to reduce by 10% the 20,800 citizens digitally excluded. Other digital initiatives included the piloting of sensors in gulleys to alert when they needed to be cleaned in case of flooding. In the past few months Plymouth has delivered nine public service sites including GP practices connected to full fibre.
She said there were plans to complete fibre delivery to 131 public service sites, maximise funding from [BDUK’s] Outside In programme, make greater use of telecare and digital education, expand the network coverage for Smart Sound and focus on skills and exclusion. She added that barriers to delivery remained such as capacity and funding, a delay in the deployment of 5G, access to accurate data and privacy concerns.
But as Ms Lee concluded: ‘We’ve got a renewed sense of confidence about how we can use digital moving forward.’
The third speaker was Fotis Karonis, who provided more insight into some of the transformational work already taking place in the UK and what better connectivity could mean for the future of local places. He explained that 4G now covered 85% of the UK geographically and most of the populated areas, with 5G now rolled out in more than 125 locations. He added: ‘The opportunity is great. Our 4G covers close to 20,000 sites which gives us a great footprint to build on 5G.
‘This combination of fibre, 4G and now 5G creates a digital fabric – we want to provide a gigabit society and ensure our cities and rural areas have broadband to run our private lives and businesses.’
‘Technologies such as Cloud, AI, virtual reality and wearables – which up to now were considered as IT – are now combined with 5G and enhanced broadband, which means they can be applied operationally. This is mission critical and is transforming industries, organisations and places.’
Mr Karonis cited examples of the impact of ubiquitous connectivity, such as healthcare in Birmingham where BT have been collaborating with University Hospitals Birmingham to ‘bring the hospital to the patient’.
‘With augmented reality we can see the condition of the patient either in the care home or ambulance. By having 5G with high quality video you can even do triage remotely.’
BT-enabled 5G in the Port of Belfast is providing remote maintenance capability, while in Scotland, with University of Stirling, they launched a ‘first of its kind’ monitoring system over the 5G network. This supports the region’s ambitions to drive new jobs and become a leader in driving Scotland’s green recovery – including an education programme and cases such as flood detection, sustainable brewing and distilling operations and water quality monitoring in reservoirs, lakes and estuaries.
Mr Karonis sees 5G as a means of enhancing the green agenda, adding ‘this is a golden opportunity for the UK with the Glasgow [COP26] summit [in November].’
In his enthusiastic conclusion Mr Karonis said the digital agenda was ‘about engaging with councils, health, business and creating the digital fabric to deliver great outcomes. Let’s sit down and co-create. Technology isn’t just about sharing a video; it’s about transforming society.’
To find out what BT are doing to help the public sector transition to net zero, please visit: https://business.bt.com/insights/events/towards-net-zero/