Ron Simpson: Why 2016 will be a year of digital decisions

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There appear to be no dissenters to the argument that the economic future of Uppingham and Rutland will depend heavily on the county having an appropriate ‘virtual’ presence and a reliable next generation telecommunications infrastructure.

While much will depend on forward looking public and private sector decisions at local level, national and regional developments could be crucial.

In the Spring of 2015 the United Kingdom’s national telecoms regulator Ofcom announced a strategic review into the country’s digital communications market, the outcome of which will have significant implications for Rutland and the UK. The review has looked at competition and investment, future innovation, and the availability of broadband, phone and mobile services. It is set to report early in 2016. The last such study was undertaken in 2004/5. It forced BT to open up its national network to more competition and 
enabled the creation of companies like Rutland Telecom, now a subsidiary of the very successful Gigaclear. Major providers such as Virgin and Vodafone are hopeful of further significant moves to open up competition, specifically perhaps the spinning off of Open Reach as a separate company from BT.

A number of other Ofcom decisions may have local interest. Today, December 31, 2015, sees the Wireless Telegraphy (White Space Devices) Exemption Regulations come into effect. ‘White spaces’ are gaps in the radio spectrum in frequency bands, which can be used to offer new wireless applications to benefit consumers and businesses. The white spaces covered by the regulations are in frequencies currently used for digital terrestrial TV and wireless microphones, among other services, in the 470 - 790 MHz spectrum band. Trials of white space broadband with a particular relevance to rural communities have been going on for the last two years with a view to providing broadband for hard to reach areas. Might such a service be relevant to Rutland? Perhaps this is an issue to be picked up by the Rutland Mast project?

So what of local developments? The Digital Rutland project has stayed close to BT with at least one RCC employee securing a leading role with the company. BT has made excellent progress in empowering its cabinets around the county with fibre broadband. The final connection is by copper wire, just like the old telephones. This has sufficed for many, particularly those who have been given no other choice of infrastructure. Speeds are OK for most and BT research promises significantly higher speeds by 2020. The principal problem, however, seems to be the reliability of copper wire based services as evidenced in business and household complaint statistics. The alternative approach of fibre to the premise (FTTP) has been pursued by a number of Rutland villages, part of Uppingham and Uppingham School. I am fortunate enough to live and work in a FTTP area and regularly have 900Mbps + upload and download speeds available to me. Also my telephones operate on the fibre network at negligible additional cost. Crucially, the service has been 100% reliable for over two years now. Look to the West and Rutland has cause to worry. Leicestershire CC is supporting villages in the east of its county to connect up to a rapidly developing fibre network that is slowly encircling Rutland. Will 2016 be the year the Digital Rutland project reviews its strategy and goals? Many certainly hope so.

Here in Uppingham significant local decisions are likely during 2016. Online trading, effective public and private wifi and the digitising of information and entertainment are increasingly important to the high street, so the draft Town Centre and Business Zones Plan proposal to equip the town centre with a fibre to the premise spine connecting homes and shops has attracted much interest. Will this be a joint public/private sector venture or simply a commercial initiative? A far reaching decision is required which is likely to test the vision and credibility of local decision makers? Similarly, now that landowner permission has been given to go ahead with the Rutland Mast project, how should this be operated and financed? The original notion was that the mast remains within community ownership, perhaps using community shares. The private sector has expressed interest in the mast given its approval within the Uppingham Neighbourhood Plan (UNP) and its ability to deliver a signal to Corby and other industrial areas. A joint venture is thought to be the way forward here. Decisions reached will have long term consequences for the future of virtual and digital Rutland. Finally, all new homes to be built in Uppingham from 2016 onward should, if developers keep to the UNP, be equipped with the very latest FTTP connections allowing consumer choice of provider. Will there be an attempt to frustrate this strategic decision?

It should be an interesting year!