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West Midlands Levelling Up Growth Prospectus

Digital Infrastructure:

Regional Fibre Broadband Backbone

The Challenge

In the modern era, reliable broadband is arguably one of the most important utilities available — without it, growth and productivity across the whole region would suffer. It allows greater access to education and employment opportunities for the public, as well as allowing businesses to connect with the world and increase productivity.

At present, the region’s full fibre coverage is inconsistent and sporadic, ranging from 85% coverage in Coventry, well over the average for England of 31%, to 18% in Wolverhampton*.

Data from Ofcom (see map below) shows that the majority of key strategic sites are located in areas with little or no Gigabit-capable infrastructure. Market feedback also suggests that the current future deployment plans are unlikely to address these sites, meaning that there is significant untapped potential within the region. 

The Prize

A national report by Openreach states that, for fibre, £59 billion of value is estimated to be gained across the UK by 2025, increasing to over £70 billion by 2038.

With most businesses needing access to broadband and an increase in remote working following the Covid-19 pandemic, full fibre coverage needs to be broader and more evenly distributed across the region to allow all to benefit from the higher growth and productivity it brings. 

Access to reliable broadband would help bridge the digital divide, enabling those living in deprivation access to online public services including healthcare, DWP services as well as education, skills and employment resources. Our proposals would increase full fibre coverage to a further 30,000 commercial premises and around 65,000 residential homes. This in turn would complement our regional pledge to deliver digital skills and digital adoption business support initiatives.

Levelling Up Mission:

By 2030, the UK will have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for the majority of the population.

Progress So Far…

WM5G have proven the ability to accelerate the deployment of 5G across the West Midlands by 6 - 12 months, and with the right level of investment and enablers they can do the same for fibre connectivity. WM5G has delivered 40 trials demonstrating the benefit of 5G in the West Midlands.

Where local authorities invest in Digital Champions, Digital Co-ordinators, and Digital Ambassadors, it’s clear that the level of connectivity is improved. This is due to greater engagement with the telecoms industry, and the ability to identify and access public and private funding to support digital infrastructure. 

Another area of successful intervention is where ‘Barrier Busting’ activity is undertaken. Local authorities can directly intervene utilising their Digital Co-ordinator, but where it has been most successful is when industry experts have been utilised to work with both industry and local authorities, acting as a broker to improve relationships, education, to introduce aspects of standardisation, and to intervene when blockages occur. 

Our Proposal

WMCA to address existing gaps directly and quickly in ‘Full Fibre to the Premises’connectivity for the key strategic site across the West Midlands.

We’ll do this by procuring connectivity for these sites as quickly as possible by laying down 128.7 km of new duct/fibre.

The easiest way for this to happen would be for Project Gigabit to reprioritise its investments at the next Open MarketReview.

The majority of funding would then come to the market as the network will pass within 250 metres of around 30,000commercial premises and around 65,000residential homes.

We need to set up a Central Co-ordinationBody to work with the market e.g., operators. It does not involve the CombinedAuthority directly investing in a fibre network but assumes a body is set up(and incurs operating costs) to work with the market to identify coverage gaps and opportunities and provides a “one-stop” shop of advice to help providers.

What We Hope to Achieve

  • Ensure that the number of premises in the region that have access to gigabit-capable broadband remains above the national average.
  • Accelerate the deployment of FFTPbuilding on our track record of accelerating the delivery of 5G in the region by 6 months making the West Midlands the best-connected region for 5G.
  • Deliver consistent FFTP coverage across the region distributing the opportunities that reliable broadband offers more evenly.

*Wolverhampton has recently benefited from grant funding of £4.9m from DCMS to raise its coverage from3% to the current level of 18%, and is on track for further improvement.