How can local authorities demonstrate leadership and create a strategy to encourage investment in digital infrastructure?
Digital infrastructure is a vital part of delivering a local authority’s vision for the future of its community and can form an important element of both a local digital strategy and a local industrial strategy. A ‘digital champion’ can provide the leadership and focus required to develop and deliver an effective digital infrastructure strategy.
Digital infrastructure strategy
A focused strategy for encouraging and facilitating the deployment of telecommunications networks could help to boost economic growth, digital inclusion and deliver a range of societal benefits including the more effective provision of local public services. This could be a part of a wider digital strategy or a standalone document.
Developing a local digital infrastructure strategy could involve:
- identifying a senior ‘digital champion’ to lead the process
- bringing together local teams involved in the deployment of digital infrastructure
- translating digital connectivity ambitions into a detailed strategy
- agreeing the required skills and resources to deliver the strategy
- collaborating with network providers
- clarifying a division of tasks and resources in two-tiered local authorities
An effective digital infrastructure strategy could:
1. Explain how the local authority will facilitate the rollout of digital infrastructure
For example, this could include developing planning policies that support the roll out of new digital infrastructure in line with policies in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This states local authorities “should support the expansion of electronic communications networks, including next generation mobile technology (such as 5G) and gigabit broadband connections.”
It could also include making available their ducts, roof-tops and street furniture to support the rollout of public wi-fi, 4G and/or small cells for 5G, or committing to only procure lamp posts with the capability of hosting digital infrastructure.
- Further information on access to public sector assets
- NPPF chapter 10 on “Supporting high quality communications”
2. Increase cooperation with infrastructure providers and network operators
The strategy could stress the importance to the local authority of working in partnership with infrastructure providers and network operators.
3. Encourage the local authority to plan for the future
A digital infrastructure strategy could highlight the importance of taking future digital infrastructure requirements into account when conducting council business. For example, considering the potential for additional capacity when installing ducting/fibre-optic cables, or the potential need for mobile small cells when procuring street lights.
4. Promote long-term investment
An effective strategy could recognise the long-term benefits to the community from encouraging investment in digital infrastructure, over the short term benefits from revenue generation. For instance, it could highlight the significance of digital connectivity to the area and the social and economic benefits of connectivity.
5. Identify and aggregate public sector demand for connectivity services
A digital infrastructure strategy could support investment in infrastructure by encouraging local authorities to consider how to aggregate demand by combining the connectivity needs of different public services when entering into procurements.
6. Provide transparent contact information of key local authority stakeholders
In particular those of a local and senior digital champion and a digital infrastructure coordinator.
A digital champion in a local authority could help to minimise barriers to the rollout of broadband and mobile networks and support effective engagement between local authority and network operators. This could be a senior cabinet member, councillor or senior local authority official.
The digital champion could work closely in partnership with network operators to develop, implement and advocate a local area digital infrastructure strategy in line with other local policies and priorities.
The digital champion could:
Provide strategic leadership on the local authority’s digital infrastructure strategy.
Engage with senior stakeholders within the local authority, such as the highways, planning, estates, IT, legal, transport, economic regeneration and digital economy policy areas, to coordinate the development and delivery of the digital infrastructure strategy.
Promote the adoption of policies, processes and practices across the policy teams within the local authority which can help to minimise the time and costs needed for the roll-out of fibre and mobile networks.
Know what the connectivity needs of the local area are.
Work with industry to promote to the local authority, residents and businesses the social and economic benefits of improved connectivity in the area/region. This could include training for elected members, such as planning committee members, on the ambitions of the council in respect of their digital infrastructure strategy and other related issues to help to ensure they can make informed decisions when presented with planning applications for telecoms infrastructure.
A local authority may also consider appointing a digital infrastructure coordinator who could:
Act as the main point of contact or ‘account manager’ for industry on issues related to digital infrastructure, and work closely with local authority stakeholders involved in the deployment process. For example, if the planned deployment is likely to affect the road network, the digital infrastructure coordinator could engage early and regularly with the local highways authority (within two-tier authority areas) during the planning process.
Be responsible for a register of public sector assets and infrastructure, which can be used to host digital equipment.
Be responsible for a register of digital infrastructure including masts and fibre cabinets.
Ensure managing agents and subcontractors, responsible for managing local authority assets, conform to any policies as outlined in the local authority’s digital infrastructure strategy
In two-tier authorities both District and County Councils may consider appointing a digital champion (if they have a cabinet function) and Digital Infrastructure Coordinator to work together to support the deployment of digital infrastructure at the local level.