Recognising that similar challenges were coming up everywhere, funding was sought from the Shared Outcomes Fund to try and solve some of these challenges collectively rather than each place reinventing the wheel. The desired outcome being quite simply “to deploy the connectivity that we all want, more quickly”.
Lancaster summarised the four key workstreams of the DCIA project:
- Digital Asset Management: being explored by the 8 pilots and the primary focus of the Bristol event. The digital asset management workstream seeks to support national adoption of online platforms which digitalise and as much as possible automate the process of finding and securing rights-of-use of suitable locations for deployment of advanced wireless equipment.
- PFI contracts: Analysis of the impact of public finance initiative (PFI) contracts, relating to the use of street furniture assets.Where street furniture assets are jointly or wholly managed by PFI contracts, granting permissions to use assets for small cells can be complex. DCMS has been working with DfT and PFI providers on how to address some of the associated legal and practical challenges.
- Standard contracts: Work has been taking place with local authorities and providers who have already gone through contract processes to take best practice from standard contracts and make them available to a wider network; helping to cut down on time and legal expenses. Links to these contracts can be found on the DCMS Guidance on access agreements page.
- Standards for smart infrastructure: Working with BSI currently on publicly available specifications (PAS’s) for smart lamp posts. As a precursor to the PAS work a Physical Security study was conducted, to explore the physical security landscape of street infrastructure.
Speaking to the Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, Lancaster placed DCIA as part of the wider policy work undertaken by her team with the primary goals of: supporting digital inclusion, encouraging investment in digital infrastructure and maximising the benefit from 5G and other advanced technologies. The directorate as a whole has a broad remit, encompassing gigabit broadband, security and resilience of networks and the equipment supply chain, and believes that networks will become more diverse, with new models emerging to improve the economics of delivery.
“We know there is huge potential to be had from 5G and it feels like we’re in an interesting place. The tectonic plates are shifting – moving from wireless networks primarily used for humans to connect with each other to a point where primarily machines are needing connectivity – AI, digital twins, advanced manufacturing. Connectivity is becoming the fundamental infrastructure of the economy. The range of apps the networks need to support has gone from voice to data to mission critical services relying on features that standard consumer networks can’t provide - such as Ultra Reliable Low Latency, higher uplink - and to provide these networks, more investment is required.”
The approach within the team, she stated, is a dual one: (1) overcoming barriers to make it easier to deploy connectivity but also (2) to understand the role of the public sector as a customer of that connectivity.
To the first point, Lancaster referenced changes that have been made to planning in England, making it easier to deploy equipment e.g. on roofs, and allowing for bigger masts that can then be shared. Additionally, a bill (the Product Security & Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill) is currently making its way through government to bring clarity to negotiations between landowners and network providers.
Considering the role of the public sector as a customer, Lancaster highlighted a range of potential use cases from smart place apps to IoT sensors, for health and social care or environmental monitoring, or supporting investment in connectivity for transport links. “We’re seeing places starting to grapple with how they can enable and encourage the investment they can benefit from for their local economies,” she said, before clearly stating that DCMS wants to work with places to figure out what those models are. Critically, she identified that while it may not be the role of central government to say what the right model is, they do want to work and have conversations with all parties present at the event - and beyond - about how DCMS can support places to get the connectivity they need, in partnership with providers.
In her final comments, Lancaster reflected on the 5G Testbeds & Trials programme and how it had been hugely useful in demonstrating what 5G and the technologies it enables, can be used for. She called out the 5G Logistics project, based in Bristol, as a fantastic example of how something that starts as a trial can move into commercial provision, stating that government is keen now to move from trials and pilots to finding the commercial models for sustainable deployment. It is through these models that providers and communities will be able to work in partnership to find ways to deliver connectivity for the benefits of everyone.
This first formal presentation of the day expressed both the importance of DCIA in the context of the wider infrastructure strategy, and the commitment within DCMS to support both local authorities and industry by identifying and tackling challenges at a central level.