Digital infrastructure: laying the foundations for a better-connected future

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In the first of three articles looking at the challenges facing the building control sector, James Carson highlights the growing demand – driven in part by changes to the building regulations due in 2017 – for future-proof digital infrastructure.

The broadband imperative

Online living is rapidly becoming the new normal. From the comfort of our sofa, we can order a pizza, download a book, watch a movie, have a video chat with a friend, and report a street lighting fault to the local council – all by using a smartphone or tablet.  Increasingly, online applications are also helping us to work from home, monitor and manage healthcare devices and remotely operate domestic appliances.

Which means that broadband connectivity is becoming as indispensable as electricity and water supply. Fast, reliable online connections depend on a responsive digital infrastructure, and in the coming months new developments that may be crucial for the UK’s digital future will begin to have an impact.

Delivering a future-proof infrastructure

From 2017, changes to the building regulations in England will require new buildings and major renovations to install infrastructure that enables connections to broadband speeds in excess of 30 megabits per second (the national average is currently 18Mbps). Similar regulations will implement the legislation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The changes are being driven by an EU directive.

Equally important is an agreement between the UK government, the Home Builders Federation (HBF) and Openreach – the division of BT which maintains the UK’s network of telecoms fibres, wires and cables. The deal will see fibre-based broadband offered to all new developments, either free of charge or as part of a co-funded initiative.  The offer applies not only to Openreach, but other network providers, such as Virgin Media and Hyperoptic, and promises connection speeds 20 to 100 times as fast as a typical cable modem. These new homes will be high-speed ready from the moment their new residents move in, giving the properties a market edge over homes without fibre-based broadband.  As Stewart Baseley of the HBF explained:

“Broadband speeds are an increasingly important factor in the home-buying process and this offer to developers will see more new build purchasers benefit from the very best connectivity to go alongside the many other advantages of purchasing a brand new home.”

Underlining this, the Rightmove property search website has added a broadband speed checker to its listings, enabling potential buyers to assess connection speeds, alongside the quality of local schools and transport links.

Public and private sector moves

Beyond these changes, a growing number of local planning authorities have been introducing measures to encourage and support high-speed broadband provision in new housing developments. Councils in East Dunbartonshire, Richmondshire and Gosport are among those which have included broadband objectives and policies in their local plans.

The commercial property business is also waking up to the importance of high-quality internet access. Property companies such as Workspace and WeWork understand that occupiers demand superfast connectivity, and have been installing fibre-based broadband. “We would argue a building isn’t worth all that much if an occupant can’t access the internet in the way they want to”, Chris Pieroni of Workspace told Property Week International.

Turbocharging the digital revolution

A growing number of cities are taking the lead in exploring ways in which “smart technologies” can create more liveable places for growing populations, as well as conserving energy and protecting the environment.

Examples include smart ticketing schemes for public transport systems, pedestrian crossing signals that adapt to people with walking difficulties, and congestion-sensitive meters that warn drivers away from heavy traffic (and charge them if they don’t comply).

Bristol is one ‘smart city’ that’s seizing the opportunities presented by improvements in digital infrastructure. The Bristol is Open project – a public/private collaboration – has been laying the groundwork for a world-leading, interlinked infrastructure that includes a new fibre network and a selection of internet-of-things technologies.

Looking out for the left-behind

In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference this year, Theresa May reminded her audience that, even as the digital revolution gathers speed, many are missing out:

“It’s just not right…that half of people living in rural areas, and so many small businesses, can’t get a decent broadband connection.” 

The prime minister was alluding to figures showing that around 8% of premises in the UK are connected by lines unable to receive broadband speeds above 10Mbit/s. But while the government has promised to provide 95% of UK premises with access to superfast broadband by 2017, many rural and ‘hard-to-reach’ areas are struggling to get connected. The forthcoming changes to the building regulations specify exemptions for properties where the cost of ‘high-speed ready’ would be disproportionate, meaning that smaller and rural developments may be excluded.

Fed up with being overlooked, some local communities have taken matters into their own hands. In Buckinghamshire, Village Networks has brought broadband to rural areas across the south of England. And Broadband for the Rural North has laid fibre optic cables in rural parts of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria, giving residents download speeds of up to 1000 Mbit/s.

The future is…now?

Online access has become such a fundamental requirement of 21st century living that digital connectivity is no longer an optional extra. That dependence is only going to become greater, placing even more pressure on digital infrastructure.

These changes will also have profound implications for the building control sector, which is already having to assess increasingly complex developments.

The next article in this series will look at further challenges facing building control in its efforts to forge a modern and diverse profession.


Further reading

The Building (Amendment) Regulations 2016 introduce a new requirement for in-building physical infrastructure which enables connections to broadband networks. Guidance on complying with the new requirement is set out in Approved Document R.

Bristol is Open: case study of an innovative smart city: this blog post from The Knowledge Exchange describes a joint venture between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council. Using digital technologies, Bristol is Open is creating an open programmable city that gives citizens more ways to participate in and contribute to the way their city works.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

One thought on “Digital infrastructure: laying the foundations for a better-connected future

  1. Pingback: Building control – constructing a modern, diverse profession | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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