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Connectivity for your council

Real Wireless Chief Commercial Officer John Okas considers how local authorities can better understand the socio-economic benefits of improved connectivity for their citizens

You’re a city council planning a strategic boost for connectivity in your city. This effort will attract and support key industries with the promise of advanced 5G wireless networks, potentially across the city and maybe the surrounding areas.

It’s a fairly simple business, isn’t it? Work with operators, plan the deployment, put up some infrastructure.

Of course, it isn’t simple. A council will need to have a clearly defined planning and permission granting process. It will need to have business models that can be used for the deployment of wireless infrastructure making use of its street assets. It will need to understand and manage the impact of wireless infrastructure rollout on public thoroughfares and streets – commercially, technically and aesthetically.

It will also need to communicate clearly with the appropriate stakeholders, some internal, some external – internal experts in such fields as finance, planning, projects and street works, but who may have little understanding of wireless. The external stakeholders could include mobile operators, local businesses, government bodies and key local institutions such as historical bodies, universities and others pursuing an innovation agenda. Collectively, many of these stakeholders could be users of 5G services, providers of such services and requiring access to council assets or beneficiaries of the use cases supported by new wireless services. All stakeholders have views that need to be considered.

Most of all, a council will need to decide what kind of technologies will best meet requirements and how much it is willing to invest.

But there’s one thing a council will need to do before it undertakes any of this: find out whether it has enough wireless expertise internally. If not, it will need to find experts to help guide its wireless strategy.

That’s what Belfast City Council did when i working on an ambitious project to bring advanced wireless communications to the city – and that’s where we come in. Real Wireless provided that expertise.

Our work to date started simply. It began with supplying information to a wide range of internal stakeholders: what wireless infrastructure is about, the equipment needed, the deployment challenges and options, what the technologies can deliver, and whether services will be shared across more than one operator.

Then we had a look at how we could improve and accelerate Belfast’s internal planning processes. The aim was not just to speed up the planning process, but also to help the council to be more informed when dealing with planning requests.

Our aim was to ensure that a great city ends up with quality communications infrastructure and innovative services that met current needs as well as Belfast’s considerable ambitions, whilst at the same time having minimal visual impact on the built environment.

In addition to considering deployment scenarios, we also analysed the business models that could be used for the deployment of such advanced wireless infrastructure and how Belfast City Council should best position itself – from a simple street asset concession approach to the considerably more complex neutral host role.

Every major city with any kind of ambition should have a future communications strategy – and Belfast has an impressive one. However, one thing that often undermines such ambition is the very broad range of skills required to assess, plan and deliver such capabilities.

We have that broad range. It includes knowledge of current and next generation wireless networks, Open RAN, virtualisation and the edge technologies that are going to change network architectures. It includes practical understanding of the different types of sites and the physical requirements they involve – small cells, fibre provision, rooftop macros.

It includes a clear idea of the time it takes to deploy these different types of sites and the different types of coverage and throughput they provide. It includes an understanding of the assets a local authority owns, how to make best use of them and where and how to invest to optimise the benefits of wireless services.

It even includes a detailed plan for the role of the council. How hands-on does an authority want to be? Does it simply want to work on planning and permissions? Or does it want to be a private operator in its own right, with all that implies in investment, management and stakeholder engagement? Based on the work Real Wireless has done in this area, we understand that every city and local authority is different – there is no one solution that fits all.

For now the Belfast wireless strategy is work in progress. What matters is that it’s very much on track. That’s because Belfast looked at its needs, budget, structure and internal expertise – and brought in Real Wireless.