Facilitating better relationships between local government and infrastructure providers

Unique insights into the obstacles which need to be overcome to enable closer partnerships with local government

Read this article to learn:

  • How the economics of 5G impact at a municipal and regional level
  • The varying approaches of local government to Smart City readiness
  • How local authorities are preparing for 5G rollout
  • How infrastructure providers can better collaborate with local government

Urban Foresight is a smart city and innovation consultancy with a strong practice in working with in public sector bodies (at all scales), industry and investors; notably in areas such as smart cities, digital transformation and smart mobility. Through their extensive experience in helping to get Smart City projects off the ground, they have seen the difficulties faced by local government in attempting to create and enact digital policies despite funding and staff cuts, and have witnessed how infrastructure providers struggle to navigate complex public sector chains of command and decision making structures. Graham Thrower, Head of Infrastructure and Investment at Urban Foresight, talks to TowerXchange about where he sees the challenges for infrastructure providers, and how both industry and local government can collaborate more effectively to deliver the next generation of infrastructure and services that our cities need. 

TowerXchange: Please introduce Urban Foresight and the scope of what you do.

Graham Thrower, Head of Infrastructure and Investment, Urban Foresight:

We’re a smart city and innovation consultancy, originally born out of an expertise in low carbon mobility and electric vehicles. We have now expanded to encompass an array of technologies considered by urban governments in context of their digital transformation and smart city plans. 

To understand how we work, think of a triangle: on one side are entities that have challenges which need solving, they could be in the public or private sector. On the second side we have solutions providers, from the diversified global technology firms to small companies providing data sensors to monitor air pollution. On the third side we have funders: from research organisations financing test beds, pilots, demonstrators and accelerator facilities, through to central Treasury funding, banks, pension funds, Sovereign Wealth Funds, through to infrastructure funds and PE. 

Each of these three sides of the triangle speaks a different language and they need someone in the middle translating. We bring problems which need solving together with people who can help them be solved. It could be a large scale, city-wide IoT solution or connectivity technologies such as 5G. Also the work we do around mobility, is not just taking carbon out of the transport network, whether that’s cars, taxis or buses, but also improving the efficiency of mobility; and that is increasingly a data intensive subject. 

In terms of mobility as a service, we think of ways to make it more efficient: combining journeys, public transport handing off to other forms of transport, EV charging points and the energy infrastructure needed to make that happen. We’ve run a project around assistive technology for vulnerable communities where the technology used could be an off the shelf solution like Alexa or customised platforms from large players to much more niche suppliers. We sit down with clients to understand the issue they have, define the problem, develop the solution to that problem, and then deliver that solution. We don’t just produce research (although we do produce market-leading research) but we work always with the aim of delivering improved outcomes for stakeholder groups in whatever area we’re working in. 

TowerXchange: 5G is being discussed in depth at the moment but the use cases which will make the business model work are yet to be made clear. Can you talk us through how you see technology working in the cities of the future? How will the economics of 5G work?

Graham Thrower, Head of Infrastructure and Investment, Urban Foresight:

It is challenging in a way that the previous iterations from 2G to 3G to 4G haven’t been. In the past we have seen business cases predicated on selling more services to an existing client base, effectively keeping up with demand. With 5G there’s an element of that. EE have been making announcements about where they’ll put 5G in major UK cities for example and if you unpick that it’s not that different from what a number of MNOs are saying: they’re targeting exiting dense patches of business clients and increasing demands for capacity from personal customers in urban hotspots. Part of what MNOs will do is put in fibre to help meet that demand, which gives you some 5G type connectivity but only in defined hotspots to a defined customer base.

 MNOs and infrastructure owners are looking at other easy wins – those cities which have extensive train and subway networks are a logical place to put fibre. In Tyne and Wear, operators can put fibre on the metro and that will get them close enough for quasi 5G connectivity to 40% of the population. But outside of major cities there is a lot of geography and communities without an easy or clear case for 5G. In those cases at the moment we’re seeing various business constituencies which are putting forward their case for needing this connectivity: increasing requirements around supply chain management and business processes using things like immersive technology which needs substantial data-carrying capabilities over a number of parties. But you still have the remaining issue that if you want a fully 5G enabled local authority area then you will have to deal with a lot of marginal areas. Local authorities we’re speaking to are trying to work out how to make it as easy as possible for industry players to deploy 5G. They’re trying to put together packages of owned infrastructure assets, the primary purpose of which at present isn’t telecoms, but so they can be used as part of a 5G network. By packaging and granting access to those, perhaps through a neutral host operator, you can make life easier for other industry players to roll out. We need a combination of working with industry to create use cases to justify spend, coupled with trying to facilitate rollout and make your area easier to work with than others. Even though those use cases aren’t known now people can see what’s coming particularly in areas such as urban focused IoT and preparatory work for autonomous vehicles. The fear cities have is that even if they can’t see the justification now, in five to ten years they may be left behind which will be a constraint on their economic growth. 

TowerXchange: You work with local government bodies to help them steer towards the most effective uses of technology – can you talk us through the spectrum of their readiness for 5G and smart city infrastructure? Where do you find most local authorities sit on that spectrum? What are the galvanising factors which help a local authority to prepare more effectively?

Graham Thrower, Head of Infrastructure and Investment, Urban Foresight:

We work with cities across continental Europe and through projects with multi-national organisations we work even further afield than that, but our biggest field of expertise is in the UK. Firstly for any of the Tower community dealing with Local Authorities, they’ll realise the incredible complexity of local government in the UK. There are national strategies, not just 5G but industry strategies driving the digitalisation of industry. Then you have Local Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), Combined Authorities (such as in Greater Manchester or the North East), elected mayors in some places with varying responsibilities, differing amounts of devolved responsibility and, as a results of the City Deals process, highly variegated levels of control over funding. 

All that feeds into two really important things: Local Authorities can have widely differing financial capabilities to deliver Smart City strategies and to be a financial partner with industry. When trying to deal with local government you’ll be looking at different scale as well, so in some places at a combined authority level, at a LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) level you could have five or six different stakeholders around a table, in other areas you’ll be dealing with just one Local Authority. Each region a potential technology supplier or partner approaches will have a different financial capacity, different responsibilities and different institutional capacity. Austerity has been hitting local government for a while, and in some places considerable amounts of capacity and knowledge have been lost as part of the need to cut headcount, which of course is problematic in terms of 5G rollout which is an enabling tech for cities of the future. You can’t have a smart, sustainable, prosperous city in the future without 5G because the services won’t be able to run. This means 5G strategies tend to need to involve more than just normal technology or IT type people: they will touch on transport, premises and real estate, key industrial sectors, housing etc.. and knitting all these together in the past would have been senior people in planning who in the main aren’t there anymore. So, Local Authorities are finding 5G a real challenge and are struggling to decide where it sits. 

Your clients will already have seen this, they try to initiate discussions and it quickly becomes clear that the Local Authority hasn’t been able to take a singular view on what their strategy is. In places like London or Greater Manchester they have much more institutional capacity, devolved funding, and the scale to engage with industry in a much more meaningful way, as well as the density of business demand, density of individual demand and scale. The question is: what happens to secondary and tertiary cities and the periphery beyond that? 

TowerXchange: What are the key things you advise local authorities to do in order to prepare for 5G rollout?

Graham Thrower, Head of Infrastructure and Investment, Urban Foresight:

I think the firstly to work closely and openly with business. To pull together the principal business sectors you already have in your area, for example in the North East of England we have a lot of advanced manufacturing business with complex supply chains, as well strong capabilities in data intensive immersive tech businesses. Then you need to make the business/ecosystem use cases for the sector and for the supply chains within the sector as well. Additionally, some local governments are bundling together Local Authority-owned street assets in a way where they can go to industry players with simplified planning approvals, meaning any assets in this vehicle will have an enhanced planning process and a level of co-operation to make these available. 

I also think using the Local Authority as a lead business case in itself is important as well. We are aware that most Local Authorities are looking at a huge digital transformation in their own services, partly driven by the government agenda of doing more with less. It is also driven by realising that  social housing, education, assisted technology for the elderly and vulnerable, transport and efficiencies in the way people and goods flow through the city are all drivers of 5G; meaning the most compelling use case is the Local Authority itself. 

The enabling power of 5G becomes a recurring theme. Local Authorities can take a strong lead and can work with business, showing they’re really ‘open for business’. Metros or transport systems can be a real enabler for getting coverage quickly, and this, along with creating vehicles for street assets, can make one area more attractive to be part of the early roll out plans versus an area which doesn’t have these things. Most Local Authorities are speaking to large telcos and technology providers more generally, and have also been busy bidding into various government pots of money for testbed status to show they’re open for business. It’s a competitive environment but putting together the regional public sector side is one thing, being a strategic partner for test beds and working closely with business to articulate what the business use case is now and in coming years is critical. 

TowerXchange: Our readers are mainly third party infrastructure providers, what would you advise them are the most important steps they can take to work effectively with local government?

Graham Thrower, Head of Infrastructure and Investment, Urban Foresight:

I think first of all that the industry players need to recognise this will be a hugely expensive network to deploy. I’m sure they do realise but, if I remember back to the early days of mobile, there wasn’t a great deal of co-operation unless enforced by regulation. The shared infrastructure model becomes so compelling when you look at the number of sites required for 5G. Part of what confuses Local Authorities is when they’re visited by many individual companies who all seem to be saying quite contradictory things. Of course, it’s a competitive industry and people want to demonstrate why Local Authorities should choose them, but in terms of fundamental infrastructure layout, making the 5G estate most efficient needs to be laid out clearly and consistently by industry. At the moment the local government is struggling to get its head around the business use cases, it shouldn’t need to struggle to know what an optimal 5G network will look like as well. You need to map out roads, rail and existing communications infrastructure. A lot of cities are already digitally rendered by various entities, so you can map all this stuff onto a city, overlay a bundle of assets the Local Authority might make available to a neutral host operator and agree on what that structure should look like. Industry has a huge role to play in getting Local Authorities up that learning curve. 

When individual companies are speaking to local government it’s important to try and be open around the business models that industry see and communicate them clearly. Lots of Local Authorities are trying to work out what those business models might be but they’re one step removed and don’t have access to all the current data so, although they’re trying to sit down with business, the real experts are the industry players. I’m not saying businesses need to open up all of their data but perhaps they can give examples of experience in cities where this is starting to happen, what have been the most compelling uses, test beds or deployments in the most busy parts of the city. It’s useful to dig into conversations that MNOs are having with potential future transport providers, communicating what the business cases will be with local government who will be having discussions around smart parking, low carbon mobility, autonomous vehicles and managing traffic flow. The more they can see what is starting to work elsewhere, then Local Authorities can make the case themselves. We do see Local Authorities at some industry events and see some telcos at Local Authority events but I’m not sure the flow of information is all it could be. 

TowerXchange: Some of the main challenges faced in planning and rolling out urban infrastructure in Europe are planning and permitting – with this driven to a degree by local populations and a reluctance to see RF devices placed near to homes or schools. Do you envisage this process becoming easier in the future?

Graham Thrower, Head of Infrastructure and Investment, Urban Foresight:

I think it’s undeniably a challenge and always has been. The vast majority of research shows there isn’t an issue here, but that doesn’t help in the court of public opinion. Regardless of how easily Local Authorities make bundles of infrastructure available, national planning regulations do allow concerned people or communities to raise objections, and a lot of those aren’t going to be addressed or shifted by published research. People can tell school trustees it’s safe to have a mast on the school roof, it doesn’t mean they’re going to agree it. 

These are real world problems. When I was financing large scale mobile rollouts (primarily in the UK and Continental Europe) this was a real factor. It caused delays in civil works, which affected network capacity and had a knock on effect on revenues. Industry needs to continue to reach out to the public and local government to try and provide reassurance. The danger is that if we don’t, then areas where learning is critical won’t be covered as effectively as they should. It would be a shame if schools and colleges are left among the weaker areas of coverage. I’ve not seen any concerted and successful attempts by the industry to address this in countries like the UK which have a culture of people protesting planning approvals. I think businesses engaging with schools and colleges and perhaps having someone come along and contribute to something like a science challenge in a school can help. People are used to 4G and know the value of being in coverage. 5G will enable them to do so much more but will mean being always in reach of the infrastructure needed to provide the connectivity. People are now more comfortable with living in a networked society than they were 10-15 years ago and, if it makes people’s lives easier, then it will break barriers down.

As always, both for those who govern our cities and the Tower community and other technology providers, it comes down to open communication and early and meaningful engagement with all stakeholder constituencies. We look forward to working with all sides of this challenge to help facilitate this next generation of critical enabling connectivity.

Leave a Reply