COVID-19 has driven a step-change expansion in our digital activity and many of these changes will only accelerate beyond the pandemic. During the lockdowns and social distancing of the pandemic, the fixed and mobile networks that enable our digital lives have proved critical, with governments ranking telecoms staff alongside doctors, nurses and teachers as ‘key workers’. With most high street retailers closed, sales with online retailer Amazon were up 26%. Sectors that had been slow to move online, such as healthcare, have seen demand for remote services surge and new practices evolve rapidly.
New demands are being placed on our existing connectivity. Each of Twitter’s 5,000 employees can now choose to work from home permanently. Global workforce surveys suggest that 25-30% of office-based workers will spend multiple days a week working from home by the end of 2021. But has our digital infrastructure coped during the pandemic, and how will it have to evolve to cope in the future?
Connectivity for all
In performance terms, digital infrastructure has been relatively resilient throughout 2020’s dramatic surges in demand. Losses of service were few and short-lived, speeds largely maintained. Measuring network performance, however, only focuses on those already enjoying the benefits of digital connectivity. It masks the underlying issue of those who lack access.
COVID-19 has exposed stark digital divides between communities. Many regions still lack high-capacity digital infrastructure. Globally, there are major disparities even amongst the 37 OECD countries. The full fibre coverage of countries such as the UK (2.33%) and USA (15.55%) lags far behind leaders like South Korea (81.65%) and Japan (79.03%).
Without rapid infrastructure expansion, communities risk being left behind during the COVID-19 recovery. The market will take care of commercially viable areas. But what strategies should national, regional and local government be looking at to make our recovery and expansion effective and inclusive?
How do you spark a digital recovery
Huge post-pandemic stimulus spending is being marshalled. The European Commission has unveiled a €750bn COVID-19 recovery plan, 75% of which is focused on clean energy and digital initiatives. The UK Government’s COVID-19 economic recovery plan has put £900m behind local growth projects, including transport and digital connectivity. The question remains though: how can governments, both central and local, rapidly turn scarce funds into improved coverage for all?
We know our future economy will need high-capacity, gigabit-capable connectivity offered by fixed full-fibre and 5G networks. The disruption and costs associated with laying fibre and deploying 5G equipment risks slowing their roll-out. But there are some innovative ways to overcome these issues by reusing and repurposing existing infrastructure.
Use transport networks to kickstart expansion
Existing transport networks can provide opportunities to deploy new digital infrastructure quickly, at a fraction of the usual cost. The ongoing digitalisation of rail networks with fibre infrastructure creates new chances to extend broadband coverage to communities in ways the private sector providers can’t achieve alone.
Local authorities are also exploring the potential of using existing ducting alongside tram networks and road infrastructure to carry fibre, thereby reducing the cost of deployment. Similarly, equipment required to deliver 5G connectivity can be hosted on rooftops and lampposts. This repurposing of existing assets not only reduces cost and speeds roll-out, it allows for higher quality coverage in urban environments.
Let authority needs drive public benefits
The public sector’s own reliance on digital infrastructure during the pandemic has provided another lightbulb moment. City and local authorities can now make improved connectivity a central requirement in tenders and attract new fibre providers. As major users of digital services, city and local government can use their own purchasing power to introduce greater competition, promoting affordability, quality and wider coverage for everyone.
Use digital infrastructure to meet sustainable development goals
By helping authorities to implement better connectivity everywhere, you can do more than accelerate economic growth and shape more inclusive digital communities. Improved digital connectivity also brings a new layer of ‘intelligence’ to our energy, water, waste and transportation infrastructures, improving efficiency. Those same digital networks will increase our ability to meet the UN’s wider sustainable development goals.
With businesses in every sector, from retail to higher education, scrambling to develop all-online services, connectivity is only going to become more important. For stakeholders in national and local authorities, it’s time to think creatively about how to deliver their digital infrastructure ambitions.
Adapting to a COVID-19 world
The COVID-19 pandemic is a major shock to the world. The human cost is hard to bear and our thoughts are with all those affected. As engineers, designers and consultants we have a role to play - this is a moment to be brave, try new ideas and collaborate to develop services and facilities our communities need.