Digital London – The need and the challenges
The sheer pace of property development across London and the amount of growth and investment into new technology-based businesses has been phenomenal. London is forever striving to keep its reputation as one of the world’s leading capital cities and has always been successful at bringing together people from all over the globe.
The city of London is crucial for the UK economy. Tech enterprise companies have blossomed in London and there is no doubt about their ability to create jobs and generate revenue, as well as attract investment. The digital business sector is definitely one of the most fast growing and exciting areas of innovation.
Can London’s infrastructure keep up?
While London’s digital economy is expanding and more people are buying up property in London to be close to their job, the City has to keep up with the increased demand. To do so, it needs to be able to supply high-speed broadband to the new office suites springing up across the city, but also to the new-build property and building conversions changing large old houses to modern apartments and flats.
In many parts of London, people are likely to connect to the already established communications services that are in place, usually via existing copper networks which can currently deliver data download speeds of up to 8 Mbps. However, many new-build homes and residential building conversions will have new fibre-based networks which could deliver up to 100 Mbps and more, although there is no guarantee which one you will get, as the choice is usually in the hands of the property developer. Sometimes even that choice is given over to the telecoms service provider who may choose copper over fibre.
Keeping up with the pace of property and business expansion in the city is challenging enough, but this is even more evident when you consider London’s infrastructure. This is a historic city that was originally built for a very different world than today. There is no doubt that the history and culture to be found in the City plays a valuable part in attracting big businesses here, as well as the people who want to live and work in the city.
But London can be a planner’s and service provider’s worst nightmare! There is an obvious difficulty trying to retrofit 21st century networking cables into such an ancient city. Modern life still has to co-exist side-by-side with the old world and this is the reason why London’s ancient infrastructure poses a fundamental challenge to any new business being set up here.
Tech sector’s fast paced growth has meant that service providers such as BT having to play catch-up. Many new start-up firms, when they are trying to find suitable offices with a reliable internet connection, usually become frustrated with the lack of choice on offer. The need to be connected 24/7 also transfers over into home-life where many workers need to have high-speed broadband at home as well as at work.
The three main issues that are particularly indicative with London are: connectivity, property and transport. The needs of the digital industry will not always be consonant with the companies that supply digital infrastructure to business and property developments. This is also the case when it comes to the need to scale-up their demands on the digital infrastructure, which is essential for the growth of the industry.
Build for today, but also for tomorrow
Because of the fast-paced growth in digital businesses in London, service providers have to re-think their remit. It is no longer enough to just supply what a particular company demands. They now have to have a vision for the future in order to build networks designed to fulfil the demands of today while leaving enough capacity for future growth.
The recent London 2036 report1 from London First, the London Enterprise Panel and McKinsey, outlines London’s potential growth over the next two decades and looks at how London’s ancient infrastructure will need to adapt to meet the needs of a new global city. The main challenge is to transform London from its existing old and new infrastructure to a Gigabyte City with outstanding connectivity and easy access for everyone; not only for those living and working in the city in twenty years’ time, but in the years to follow.
London is already well served with a large number of suppliers offering a combination of services and customers quickly take up offers that meet their ever-increasing telecoms bandwidth requirements. Recent advances in transmission technology can increase the capacity of existing fibre supplied infrastructure without the need to dig up streets to replace older existing cabling. This obviously saves a lot of time and money, as well as reducing the inconvenience of having to dig up already overly busy London streets.
While this sounds like positive progression for the telecoms companies, there will come a time in the not-too-distant-future when they will have to replace old copper and fibre cabling that is no longer fit for purpose. Unfortunately, there are few incentives for telecoms suppliers to upgrade the infrastructure, especially with the difficult market environment they face today.
Where do we go from here?
In a report by Tech London Advocates2, an independent network of 1,400 private-sector technology experts, professionals and investors, is being pointed out that broadband speed, transport links and access to property have to be improved if the growth of London’s technology sector is to continue. Of those questioned, 48% said broadband speeds were damaging London’s domestic and international reputation.
The Tech London Advocates were concerned that building a digital city on top of an ageing infrastructure system undermines the whole foundation. Traditional service providers are continuing to build an infrastructure that is not fit for purpose, especially across transport and broadband. To address this rising problem, some heavy investment is going into Next Generation Access (NGA)3 that will hopefully be able to take broadband to the next level. Through the latest fibre technologies, including fibre optics, it is hoped that the new higher bandwidth system will support substantially faster broadband speeds. Unsurprisingly, housebuilders and property developers in London regard NGA as an important selling feature and are keen to have it as part of their developments.
No matter what infrastructure system homes and businesses in London find themselves on, it is an Ofcom rule that people should be able to reach 999 services during an emergency. Even when hit by a power cut, your home phone line will work because the traditional copper networks are powered from the exchange. The one disadvantage of fibre networks is that if the power goes down, so does the network. In this case a battery back-up would be advisable to meet the Ofcom rule.