Improving London’s digital infrastructure

Monday 13 November 2017

© Agnese Sanvito

© Agnese Sanvito

© Agnese Sanvito

© Agnese Sanvito

© Agnese Sanvito

London’s estates – both old and new – are aiming to present a unified face to try to lift London’s digital infrastructure onto another level. And greater communication and collaboration between the providers and the estates could be an important step in reducing delays and waiting times.

An NLA think tank featuring representatives of the capital’s estates and developers gathered at the offices of Cadogan Estate in Chelsea to discuss the provision of digital infrastructure in London, and how best to go about improving it.

Chair of the think tank Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas said that if the Great Estates joined forces with some of the larger property developers across London they could have ‘real clout’ in their dealings with providers, acting as a ‘positive and dynamic group’ to this end, and perhaps bring London up to speed with other cities abroad. ‘If London is successful, then we’re all successful’, she said.

NLA chairman Peter Murray added that this was a non-competitive issue where there was a lot to be gained by sharing good practice, and even letters sent to the chairman of Openreach would be better received from a group of powerful signatories, rather than individual organisations acting alone. The key issues are chiefly about infrastructure and particularly high speed broadband - what is available in the market and how the estates are dealing with the provision in their areas.

For Mark Kildea, finance director of Howard de Walden Estates, one of the main things was about responsibility – the traditional view was that estates develop buildings and people spend a lot of money on public realm, or ‘putting nice paving stones down’ as some might have it. But Kildea feels that one of the best things to invest in for the public realm was good connectivity around the estate. Some of the SMEs had been coming to Howard de Walden, complaining that broadband speeds were poor, so the estate directly intervened, initially approaching a number of network providers. It selected one specialising in central London, G-Network, that seemed to be ‘nimble’, doing discrete street sections and which only require 10 days’ planning notice. It is often highly disruptive when organisations dig up the roads, but this particular operator appeared quick and able to move on rapidly, leaving a fibre connection in a matter of weeks.

Howard de Walden decided to go ahead with phase one to test take-up at a cost of around £750,000 for 18 street sections. ‘When you think of the millions we spend on buildings this in my view is the best type of investment you can make’, said Kildea. The estate has gone in ‘with its eyes open’, added Kildea, conceding that it may not recoup its money and being careful to avoid promoting G-Network to its estate tenants above others – but the whole process will have taken just six months.

Often when it comes to installing new digital infrastructure, one of the main costs is parking, owing to suspended bays – this can perhaps be 40% of the total expenditure. Perhaps here is where the ‘clout’ of the estates could come in, said Mayhew Jonas, in negotiating reduced parking suspension fees. The demand-led approach can also lead to difficulties on an aesthetic front, said Cadogan property director Haydn Cooper, with an ‘ad hoc, piecemeal approach’ to digging up roads often being the result, which also has an economic impact on London. Cadogan is undertaking a public realm project for Sloane Street and will do as much as it can on digital infrastructure at the same time, but Cooper said the ability to do small ‘bites’ across the spine on interconnecting roads was an appealing one. G-Network have proved nimble operators and are already also expanding, talking to the City and Camden about further work.

G-Network is also now finding it is getting a lot of enquiries from residential properties, having started targeting SMEs specifically. But, as Mayhew Jonas pointed out, many directors and CEOs work from home and require good connectivity – the operator will offer a reduced level for a cut-price fee compared to around £200 a month and upwarads for commercial enterprises. HdW has standardised its way-leave so any tenant will know in seven days they can get connected.

For its part, Openreach is aiming to improve its offering with a co-investment model to serve estates. The challenge, said Openreach’s Matthew Kemp, is around permissions to take services to premises. It can make more of a commercial case for fibre to cabinet, Kemp explained, but it is also increasing its FTTP plans as well as looking to partnership agreements to take coverage further.

At Grosvenor, said associate director of the London estate Nick Jones it is adopting a two-pronged attack, working with both a small provider and Openreach. It found that Openreach is geared more to the fibre-to-cabinet solution, and had to work hard to get to a fttp solution instead. Openreach is definitely in the process of shifting and sees why it must move to fibre-to-premises, making a commitment to 2 million homes. ‘But it takes a little while to turn the boat around’, said Kemp.

InLinkUK, said its head of communications and external affairs Jessica Tompkinson, is partnering with Openreach to take out its central London payphones estate and install free public Wi-Fi systems in their place whilst being mindful of ‘clutter’. Its work in Manchester, furthermore, is reaching areas of deprivation where people cannot afford a broadband connection: ‘I’m hoping they will be able to reap the benefits of connectivity for the first time’, she said. The London model is paid for by advertising to fund the fibre, but a key problem was that planning officers ‘get bamboozled’ and make decisions that they don’t really understand, said Tompkinson.

The important thing is to have accessibility of fibre around one’s estate, said Grosvenor’s London Estates associate director Nick Jones, to allow for flexibility and adaptability to whatever boxes or devices need to be bolted on in future. And yet, the telecoms business never quite gets it right, said Kildea – perhaps the government should not sell spectrum until what operators said they would do under the previous spectrum is completed.

For Neil Pennell, head of engineering and design at Land Securities, perhaps the biggest challenge is in-building coverage rather than outside, with three or four mobile operators often in competition. Land Secs’ residential schemes have been new-build predominantly, where Openreach could supply, albeit in quite a ‘painful’ and lengthy process. But Pennell said in some instances he had been waiting 12-18 months to get services into a building and Openreach seemed to have a lack of dialogue between its copper and its fibre services divisions. On commercial buildings one of the main frustrations is when, even with an early approach, work proves difficult to coordinate. The smaller, nimbler operators are perhaps more geared to the customer rather than Openreach’s ‘nationalised industry mindset’, said Jonas Mayhew.

Grosvenor is trialling a system where at the point of install it will do so direct into homes and businesses as you would expect an old-fashioned Openreach socket. The disadvantage is it is more complex in the roll out. 

Ultimately, though, it is a case of estates being at the ‘end of their tether’ in terms of the standard of provision, said Portman Estates’ strategic project director Simon Loomes, after 10 years of hoping for improvements. ‘What we would like to do collectively is support an industry where we can get together’, he said. Mayhew Jonas said this may be done through approaching the Great Estates business or urban group, as well as Westminster leader Nicky Aiken especially as it is as much a residential issue as it is a business one. Westminster is not as focused or resourced on this infrastructural area as the City, said Pennell, where a group of staff are focused on the issue and assiduously police the granting of street licences. Westminster Council does respond best to residential needs and it will take notice if it becomes a major residential issue as well as a commercial one. That time has come.

‘My view, said Mayhew Jonas, ‘is it will take the great estates with the big developers working together on this’.

Key points:

  • Investment in digital infrastructure is a key component in creating good public realm and represents good value for money.
  • Smaller operators on digital infrastructure can offer a ‘nimble’ service that is less disruptive to streetscapes.
  • Getting good digital infrastructure is as important to the residential community as it is to the commercial. This is especially important given the steep rise in home working.
  • Digital infrastructure standards could be improved if developers and estates present a collective approach.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly - @davidntaylor 

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