The second FarrPoint annual connectivity research of local authority digital leaders throughout the UK has revealed an industry that is still under significant financial pressure, leading to a reduced focus on supporting the digital connectivity roll out and take-up of services, with gigabit roll out top of councils’ agendas.
The FarrPoint digital connectivity survey 2024 looked into the views of digital leaders at councils across England, Scotland and Wales. It asked IT professionals about their priorities when it came to fixed and mobile connectivity, as well as the barriers preventing progress. Responding councils were spread across a variety of geographical locations, from dense urban to rural areas.
Classic local infrastructure deployment challenges – such as issues around street works, permits and inconsistent planning processes – had overtaken a lack of central government funding as the biggest perceived barrier to improved digital connectivity. Affordability was seen by councils as the biggest barrier to residential take-up of digital connectivity services, reflecting the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
From a technological basis, the standout finding of the research was that – for the second year running – getting more areas covered by gigabit broadband remains the top connectivity priority for council digital leaders. Almost half (47%) of respondents chose it as their first priority, with another 30% as second. Getting 100% of their area covered by at least super-fast connectivity featured as the second highest priority for councils.
Just over half (51%) of councils which responded to the survey were found to have an up-to-date digital connectivity strategy (up from 43% in Jan 2023), but around 11% still had no digital connectivity strategy at all and almost a third didn’t have a digital champion.
Looking into the world of wireless, the survey found that the importance of 5G networks continues to divide opinion. Even though respondents said 5G was important to them, none picked 5G as their top priority for 2024. Ensuring more areas covered by 4G was also ranked as a higher priority than 5G on average, suggesting, said FarrPoint, that the business case and additional benefits that 5G could potentially deliver have not yet been widely demonstrated.
Councils’ IT teams were found to be very much on the ball in terms of awareness and preparedness for the various forthcoming connectivity service switch-offs with the data showing a marked annual increase in attention of these issue. Only 2% of respondents had not started planning for the migration from copper to fibre broadband, compared with 27% a year ago. That said 21% were still to put plans in place for the 2G and 3G switch offs, which are already under way.
Smart city projects have been considered by authorities for some time now, but the FarrPoint survey noted a small decrease – from 72% to 70% – in the percentage of councils that were either already deploying or considering smart places projects as they look to maximise the benefits of improved connectivity. The majority of respondents (64%) pinpointed social care is the area where smart technology can have the greatest impact.
Surprisingly, despite the importance of climate action, for the second year running aligning digital connectivity to net-zero targets was ranked as the lowest priority by respondents. There was also a slight increase – from 2% to 6% – in respondents who said net zero was ‘not important’ to the digital department.
Assessing the survey results, FarrPoint chief executive Andrew Muir said some great progress has been made on digital connectivity within councils, but there were still areas for improvement, in particular in approaches to net zero, in which he said he hoped to see a change,to reflect the pivotal role that better connectivity can play in achieving the country’s environmental targets.
“It was disappointing to see that local issues, such as the planning process and permits, were seen as this year’s biggest barrier to improving digital connectivity. I’d encourage councils to work together with other public bodies, central government and telecoms operators to tackle these challenges, because they are definitely surmountable,” he said.
“During the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, councils could also be doing more to encourage take-up of improved connectivity services among their residents. There’s a widely held perception that these are unaffordable, but we’ve seen many cases where improved services are just as cheap, or even cheaper, than existing services.
“I also hope to see a change in approach to net zero, to reflect the pivotal role that better connectivity can play in achieving the country’s environmental targets. Net zero isn’t someone else’s problem – digital departments can make a significant contribution.”
Dija Oliver, digital project manager at Swansea Bay City Deal, who contributed to the report on the survey, added: “Digital infrastructure affects all of the Swansea Bay City Deal projects and programmes. It is essential to the delivery of our partners’ digital transformation strategies, the economic growth of our region and improving social inclusion.
“We can only achieve the objectives of our programme by working collaboratively with industry, government, and our partners, using data to make decisions and being agile in our approach. I believe…that sharing these findings across authorities and encouraging debate can only help us reach our collective ambitions.”