Communications and broadband
Described as the fourth utility in addition to gas, water and electricity, the ability to connect to a rapid broadband connection is almost essential among the modern population. UK data consumption is growing by 40% each year and the young UK population in particular is becoming dependent, to an extent, on having access to a reliable network. When surveyed in 2018, 99% of all adults aged 16-34 years were internet users. As a result, the promise of information technology and the internet is becoming essential in understanding and dealing with the challenges faced in the growing development of smart cities.
The UK has a poor internet speed when compared to other major developed nations and 5% of homes and businesses in the UK currently lack access to superfast broadband. However, there is both regional and local variation - and despite its global significance, London is lagging behind smaller UK cities, such as Coventry, in terms of digital connectivity. Although urban areas have generally faster connections, many major UK city centres (e.g. London and Birmingham) receive a poorer supply of broadband than their suburbs, which may dampen economic productivity for businesses in city centre locations.
Small businesses have also fallen behind: 7% did not have an adequate broadband connection in 2017. One solution for these businesses is occupation of a serviced office space may be attractive where shared superfast lines can be utilised.
Figure 1: Internet speeds in selected cities (local authorities outside London), 2017
The UK Government recognises people have a basic entitlement to fast internet, and has promised to deliver minimum speeds of 10 megabits per second (Mbps) across the UK by 2020. With improving digital connectivity now a government priority, city network connections should see a significant upgrade by 2040. However, variation between regions and business sectors will likely remain while improvements are ongoing, although OpenReach (the main wholesale provider of broadband services) will continue to work towards supplying the majority of Britain in the longer term.
Internet coverage is increasing, but with better connectivity, the capabilities of and demand for data will grow further, particularly considering the projected growth in UK population to 72.9 million by mid-2041. Therefore, continued investment into full fibre broadband (currently at 3% UK coverage), and work to improve connectivity in city centres will be required to maintain a level of economic productivity, and the UK’s position as the largest digital economy in the G20. A well-connected, smart city that is equipped to encourage growth and success will be desirable to both investors and occupiers.
A knowledge of how information technology will change will be vital in future planning, and we predict that cities will not handle the transition universally well in the next 20 years. Nor, as Figure 1 shows, are they starting from the same place today. A city that succeeds in creating and understanding an intelligent communications infrastructure will be well placed to attract occupiers and residents. Woe betide the rest.