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High-speed connectivity in the North West: Avoiding a digital divide

High-speed connectivity in the North West: Avoiding a digital divide

As a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) report warns of a “growing digital divide” in the UK and George Osborne labels digital connectivity as “crucial” to the Northern Powerhouse, Move Commercial examines the North West’s high-speed credentials.

Words by Lawrence Saunders

At the back end of 2018 the CBI published its recommendations for the government to improve the rollout of current and future digital connectivity across the UK.

‘Ready, Set, Connect’ expressed fears that without the right spending, the UK risks “further embedding a digital divide between regions, and rural and urban locations”.

Fast-forward to February 2019 and digital infrastructure was once again on the agenda as George Osborne unveiled 10 recommendations for the Northern Powerhouse in his role as chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP).

Number seven on the NPP’s ‘Next Steps for the Northern Powerhouse’ called for full-fibre broadband to be brought to every home and business in the North’s top 30 towns and cities by 2025.

Whilst the ‘top 30’ locations are not mentioned, and the roll-out timeframe appears more than a tad fanciful, the NPP’s report does nonetheless highlight a genuine need for an increased full-fibre or Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) network in the region.

Unlike the more commonplace Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) method, FTTP is a 100% pure fibre connection and links homes and businesses directly to telephone exchanges without utilising the existing copper cabling.

Eliminating the ancient cable from the network means FTTP can support speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second (one gigabit per second), combined with near limitless bandwidth and reliability.

According to the latest data from independent broadband site thinkbroadband, just 4.23% of residential and commercial premises in the North West are currently served by full-fibre. This compares to 9.68% in London and 11.22% in Yorkshire & Humber.

Study the figures further and two North West boroughs are found languishing in the bottom 20 for FTTP coverage. A minute 0.2% of properties in Sefton and St Helens currently have access to the gold standard web connection.

Our two metro mayors have talked big on high speed digital connectivity – Andy Burnham vowed to turn Greater Manchester into a top five ‘European Digital City Region’ whilst Steve Rotherham pledged the Liverpool City Region will become the UK’s “digital gateway for the fourth industrial revolution”.

“Our ambition is to move from a current [FFTP] coverage of 2/3%, to 25% within three years,” says John Steward, digital infrastructure lead at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA).

“Infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, is key to ensuring that we can be competitive not just nationally but internationally.”

The body is utilising full fibre funding from local authorities, matched by cash from the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund, to connect public sector buildings and assets.

Once a network of around 450km is established, GMCA’s hope is that private investment will step in to extend it further to homes and businesses.

“It’s up to the market to build off that but we know from other cities that this has happened,” explains Steward.

“What we’re trying to do is create the conditions for the private sector to invest – using public sector procurement as an anchor to allow that to happen.”

Meanwhile in the Liverpool City Region, plans to deliver a £23 million, 284km ‘full-fibre network superspine’ which will connect its six boroughs are said to be moving quickly with spades expected in the ground by the end of the year.

A key objective of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s Digital Infrastructure Action Plan, the superspine will interlink several strategic regional assets including the GTT transatlantic internet fibre optic cable landing at Southport, the Hartree Centre at Sci-Tech Daresbury and Knowledge Quarter Liverpool.

“Infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, is key to ensuring that we can be competitive not just nationally but internationally,” says Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram.

“That is why we are not sitting around waiting for central government to act but have taken matters into our own hands.”

Another Liverpool-based body which has been proactive when it comes to digital connectivity is the Baltic Creative CIC.

Established in 2009, the company bought and refurbished 18 warehouses in the then semi-derelict Baltic Triangle.

Baltic Creative now owns more than 100,000 sq ft of commercial space in a district which has become known across the country and beyond as a place for tech, gaming and software businesses.

Digital House on Norfolk Street is the CIC’s latest development – a refurbished 19th Century Victorian warehouse designed specifically with digital tech tenants in mind.

A tech-focused space like Digital House simply wouldn’t have been viable at the beginning of the Baltic’s renaissance.

“We’ve waited too long for improved connectivity via the normal internet service providers (ISP).”

“We’ve waited too long for improved connectivity via the normal internet service providers (ISP),” explains Mark Lawler, managing director at Baltic Creative CIC.

“They didn’t respond to business needs and as such Baltic Broadband now provides improved broadband connectivity not just in the Baltic but across the city centre.

“The Baltic Triangle via Baltic Broadband has its own ISP and internet exchange.

“I guess it’s what Baltic does best – innovate and provide solutions to problems where they exist.”

In rural Cheshire, another part of the North West long bereft of superfast internet, broadband provider Tatton Tech – part of East Cheshire’s largest private landowner, the Tatton Group – specialises in supplying full-fibre to some of the region’s most difficult to reach areas.

Originally headquartered in Knutsford town centre, Tatton Group owner Henry Brooks wanted to move operations back onto the family’s several thousand-acre estate.

However, the property’s notoriously poor digital connectivity initially presented a major stumbling block.

“That’s when the idea came about of installing a fixed wireless wide-area network across the estate,” explains Janet Nuzum, chief operating officer of Tatton Tech.

“We put a fibre link into a location which gets beamed across the estate via a network of rebroadcast stations. That’s what started the whole thing off.

“A solution was found and it was decided to replicate the system across other rural areas which struggle.”

Nuzum, who describes dependable internet as a “human need”, says there are plenty of pockets across Cheshire which still suffer from slow speeds and believes enviable digital connectivity is crucial to retaining skilled workers.

“We want a more even playing field,” she adds. “We want to keep this net of employees within the Cheshire region and stop people going out to Manchester or Liverpool.

“Having that digital infrastructure adds to the quality of life and the local economy as well.”