UK local authorities face barriers to digital connectivity, research shows

UK local authority digital leaders increasingly recognise the importance of digital connectivity when it comes to regional development and economic growth potential - but a range of challenges are preventing progress on this,  says connectivity experts FarrPoint. 

New research by FarrPoint, conducted in December 2022, includes a survey of 100 digital leaders at local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales. It is the first study in the UK to look at priorities across fixed and mobile connectivity within local areas - and the obstacles standing in the way of progress. 

The study, which takes into account a range of issues, including gigabit-capable broadband to 5G, smart places, telecoms and net zero, found that while most surveyed councils see digital connectivity as a priority (97%), less than half have an up-to-date strategy (43%) - with 12% having no strategy at all.

There remain a range of barriers to improving connectivity, with a lack of funding from central government seen by councils as the biggest obstacle, followed by local deployment issues, the study says. 

Gigabit connectivity is where most progress was seen. All councils agreed that gigabit-enabled broadband plays a crucial role in enabling their region to remain competitive, with nearly all respondents believing their organisation has a part to play in ensuring gigabit is delivered in their area. 

However, 60% of respondents want to ensure their area is fully covered by 4G first before investing more in 5G, the survey shows.  

“With the focus from national government and industry on rolling out gigabit services and investments in fibre, it is not surprising that this was the area where we saw most progress from councils in 2022. There have also been improvements in 4G coverage, and to a lesser extent 5G, along with some advancements in smart places and IoTT," Dr Andrew Muir, Chief Executive at FarrPoint, said. 

There has been an uptick in the deployment of smart projects, with 43% of councils having deployed smart technologies in their area over the last twelve months. However, there remains a lack of confidence among local authorities for smart projects as a viable business case, with 1 in 4 still questioning the benefits. 

Councils were also questioned over their plans for the upcoming telecom switch-offs.  Despite some of the switch-offs already underway, findings reveal that many councils are unprepared for this, with 25% of respondents having no strategy in place to navigate the transition.

The least progress was seen on ensuring digital connectivity is aligned with net-zero targets, with 80% of respondents saying they were unsure how improved connectivity can reduce carbon emissions.

"This is an area that isn’t fully understood yet, despite the overwhelming majority of local authorities having declared climate emergencies in their area... local authorities need to pay more attention to this area as net-zero targets get closer, and awareness grows that connectivity is an essential enabler to achieving these targets," Muir said. 

Ceren Clulow, director of Connecting Cambridgeshire, who contributed to the report on the survey, added: “As someone who works in a local authority, and closely collaborates with other councils, operators, and telecoms industry bodies, I really welcome this report. It raises the importance of connectivity and the key role local authorities have to play in achieving the leading edge digital infrastructure needed for businesses and communities to thrive."

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