“It’s interesting,” said Roy Grant, Head of ICT at the City of York Council (CYC). “We had BBC Radio 4 come to us and they had heard how well York was connected from people out in Korea – that’s how you know you’re getting it right.”
Since 2008, York has been laying the tracks for superfast digital connectivity. Over the past decade, the city in northeast England has worked with network providers to thread fibre optic cables through its streets. York is now set to become the UK’s first “gigabit city”, offering internet speeds of 1000Mbps to its residents, businesses and services via ultra fibre optic broadband. A commonly used example shows that the 1000Mbps speeds available in York allow a two hour HD film to be downloaded in 7 seconds, which would take a basic 10Mbps speed over 25 minutes. Across the whole of the UK in May 2017, the average download speed for fixed broadband lines in the UK was 44.6 Mbps.
According to government research, faster internet connections have the potential to significantly improve growth and productivity: economists anticipate that take-up of faster broadband speeds will add £17 billion ($23.5billion) to the UK economy by 2024, with each £1 ($1.4) of public investment bringing £20 ($27.8) in economic impact.
Weak productivity growth is a particular problem for the UK’s regions and provincial cities, which lag behind their European counterparts of equivalent size, especially in the North. The UK still lags behind the EU in providing the fastest speeds of all: whereas Portugal covers 86.1% of the country with fibre broadband, in the UK coverage only extends to 1.8%.
York has built the infrastructure to allow it to take advantage of the economic dividend – but can a broadband connection alone transform the city?
How York built its network
“I had two goals,” said Grant. “I wanted to create a single footprint for the authority, with one managed service provider, driving down costs, increasing connectivity and bringing skill sets to help us manage that key enabling platform. I also wanted to make York the best-connected city in the UK.”
In 2008, CYC decided to replace its existing contracts with the internet providers for its core services such as schools and libraries. Grant chose to take the opportunity to make the tender as open as possible, with the hope that the market would respond with an ambitious project. The result was a proposal by the IT company Pinacl Solutions and fibre network providers CityFibre to build a fibre optic network in York.
“I wanted to make York the best connected city in the UK”
The scheme has cost CYC £13.7 million ($19 million) over eight years. The private partners took on the cost of the initial investment themselves, allowing the city to manage the payments over the years through its regular revenues.
The majority of the UK’s internet connections run through legacy infrastructure; copper cables managed by British Telecom. While it is possible to provide superfast broadband through this infrastructure, fibre optic cables offer generally faster speeds and more reliable coverage, and require less maintenance.
The UK government has targeted internet connectivity as a priority in recent years as it looks for ways to boost UK workers’ productivity. In comparison to European economies, UK workers are unproductive: last year, British business leaders lamented the fact the average German worker could end their week early on Thursday afternoon and still be more productive than the average British worker. The productivity gap widens further in the North of England, where cities lag behind their European counterparts of equivalent size.
As part of its most recent digital strategy, the government has pledged to provide everybody in the country with access to superfast speeds by 2020. The regulator Ofcom defines superfast speeds as anything over 30Mbps, and by 2020 all premises in the country will have the right to request to access a connection this fast.
The government has invested £1 billion ($1.4 billion) in new infrastructure, a significant part of which will be fibre optic connections. Despite these efforts, internet connectivity across the country remains mixed: while regional centres are often well connected, speeds drop off in the surrounding countryside where residential areas are less dense.
For Grant, improving speeds is about linking areas to existing hubs piece by piece, giving the city and its surrounding area a boost. “I always thought that connectivity is like an ink spot that slowly spreads and grows,” said Grant. “If we create enough Yorks, or enough inkspots in the region, it should be easy for the telecoms companies to join those dots up, and then we’ll have a connected region, by default.” CYC plans to have fibre optic connections to 70% of premises in the city by 2019, and to bring the same reforms to the neighbouring town of Harrogate.
“We have built York for others to plug into into”
“That’s what a regional network is about, but people are always standing still, or sitting on the fence, and not building,” said Grant. “We have built York for others to plug into.”
The economic benefits
Fibre broadband provides the opportunity for the city to attempt ambitious smart city projects of its own. In the coming years, York will use funding of £3 million ($4 million) from the Department for Transport to build a data analysis system to analyse and improve transport in the city. With the Smart Travel Evolution Programme (STEP), CYC will pull together transit data from across the city, allowing it to model transport patterns and intervene to manage the system better.
“We’re a small, medieval gothic city. We can’t build ring roads; we can’t build roundabouts,” said Grant. “We see technology as the answer to all our transport management problems.”
“Don’t wait for it to come – you’ve got to go out and grab it and bring it into your cities”
The digital economy is outperforming the rest of the UK economy in terms of growth and productivity: providing the building blocks for tech businesses to thrive can lead to big dividends for the cities that make the changes. While the high-tech economy is still dominated by London, it is growing across the country. A Nesta report showed that in 2013 the Yorkshire and Humberside region had the second fastest growth in the technology sector in the whole of the UK. Building infrastructure such as the fibre optic network makes cities attractive to investment, and helps small business to find new opportunities.
York is wealthy in comparison to many others in the region, with a low unemployment rate, and is one of the UK’s few provincial cities which compares well to cities of equivalent size in Europe. York’s case may not therefore be directly applicable to neighbouring cities, even if it shows the benefits of these changes.
“We always thought that if we could make it happen in York it may give the incentive for others to follow,” said Grant. “The cities themselves, we’re key; we’ve got a unique offer to the telecom market. Don’t wait for it to come – you’ve got to go out and grab and bring it into your cities.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Gerard Stolk)