Superfast internet will be the electricity that powers our future connected economy. It’s a fitting analogy because living in a connectivity ‘not-spot’ will be the equivalent to living ‘off the grid’ and will have a stifling effect on social and economic development.
Just as communities without electricity are deprived of heat and light, those inhabiting digital blackspots will be left without basic services such as smart meters, smart transport, digital education and digital healthcare. As authorities increasingly use location-based digital data to map everything from crime to disease in real-time, those living in digital ‘not-spots’ will effectively be living ‘off the map’ and their problems may, therefore, be invisible to authorities.
Crucially, as the future economy will depend on real-time services ranging from the ‘IOT’ to machine-learning, the productivity and prosperity of unconnected communities will be severely inhibited. Digital blackspots could become blackspots of economic inactivity.
To begin with, we need to know where our existing telecoms networks are in relation to all the homes and businesses around the country. UK network infrastructure is splintered among 300 independent organisations so there is no single map of the national telecoms grid or of where all our cables and antennae intersect with all the people and places that will depend on them. For example, there are 5.5 million kilometres of underground infrastructure including data lines and cables. Yet there is no integrated map of this subterranean labyrinth in relation to what lies above it.
This means that planners can't see where internet networks are in relation to the human settlements and services with the weakest signal, those most at risk of being left behind. How can we guarantee every home and business will receive superfast broadband if we do not even know where our internet infrastructure is located in relation to the places where people live and work?
This also means we can't see how other infrastructure, from nearby underground pipes to tall buildings, might interfere with a broadband signal in each region. Future fixed and mobile connectivity networks will all be 5G so that everything from underground fibre cables to radio waves will need to be managed as a single connectivity ecosystem above and below ground. Planners will need to know where 5G networks are in relation to all other subterranean and over-ground conditions.
For example, full-fibre cables can be affected by underground water while 5G will also move radio signals to even higher frequencies where they are more vulnerable to weather interference. Without a single map of our telecoms grid, we can't predict how local weather might impact on superfast broadband in, for example, Britain’s highest towns.
A recent project shows how the latest digital technology could realise the vision of truly nationwide 5G. OS worked with the Met Office, the University of Surrey's 5G Innovation Centre and Bournemouth Borough Council, processing and integrating 30 datasets to build a digital twin of Bournemouth to help establish what kind of mapping data is needed to play and deploy 5G connectivity. The map comprised a high-resolution 3D model of the town, featuring buildings, vegetation, street furniture and utility assets. This meant they could simulate the way that obstacles, from rainfall to trees, would interfere with high-frequency 5G signals.
Mapping the infrastructure in relation to 5G signal planning has enabled Bournemouth to gain valuable insight into the challenges and approaches for deploying 5G. A digital twin of infrastructure in every town and village in Britain could achieve the same for the whole country.
A 'right' to superfast internet is just a meaningless abstraction, without the practical means of achieving it. We will need to map and model all of our infrastructures as one, for the benefit of all, if we are to turn internet equality into a reality.