A real-time map of Scotland giving an instant visual snapshot of where mobile network operators can install vital 4G and 5G technology is part of a series of measures unveiled by a government-backed infrastructure improvement agency intended to speed up next-generation connectivity.

Infralink, an initiative devised by the Scottish Futures Trust and funded by the Scotland 5G Centre, is the first national programme of its kind in the UK and will create a central hub of information designed to enhance the rate of next-generation mobile connectivity growth across the country. Backed by heavyweight government bodies and industry – including Connected Places Catapult, a UK innovation centre; DWF, the legal firm; and digital connectivity specialists Farrpoint – the ground-breaking National Asset Register will be part of a nationwide suite of tools designed to streamline a process that is viewed as unnecessarily complex and that has been subject to numerous legal disputes between mobile network operators (MNOs) and landlords, both public and private. 

The opaque rules of engagement, and a tendency to resort to a statutory remedy via a well-intentioned but flawed Electronic Communications Code, has led to a situation whereby demands for high-speed connectivity – heightened during the coronavirus pandemic – are not being met. 

Sarah Eynon, Programme Manager, Infralink

Sarah Eynon, programme manager for Infralink, explained: “For many reasons, the current process is not working as well as it should, and Infralink is the result of a piece of work that tried to understand what the barriers were to mobile connectivity, and how to help overcome them at a national scale. We conducted a discovery exercise that engaged with the MNOs, government and public sector landlords to come up with a set of proposals that are balanced, workable and transparent, that recognise both the need for control for a landlord and the wider connectivity needs of local communities.”

She added: “Ultimately, what we are designing is a best-practice oriented suite of tools that will help us continue the effective rollout of 4G, which in turn will help Scotland secure its 5G future.”

The most eye-catching element of the proposals is the online map of data assets, much of which is already held by existing data collators such as the Improvement Service, the innovation arm of Scottish local government. And if the system works as intended it will create a marketplace for public sector assets, which will stimulate engagement between MNOs and landlords, something that has never been attempted on a national scale before. 

But of equal importance are the two other measures proposed by Infralink. One is a set of standard documentation that will provide a serviceable route through the legalese of the code, removing the need for many resource intensive and unnecessary discussions. The other is a payment guidance framework that aims to calibrate expectations around price, setting a balanced starting point for both parties to have fair and reasonable discussions about commercial terms. 

These latter two elements are timetabled to be ready for use in early 2021. This will be timely given the £1bn deal signed by the UK government and the four dominant mobile operators, EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, in March 2020. The Shared Rural Network (SRN) aims to put an end to poor and patchy rural ‘notspots’ across the UK. Overseen by a jointly-owned company called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited (DMSL), Scotland is expected to see a massive increase in areas that get coverage from all four MNOs, increasing this from 42% of Scotland to 72% by 2024.

According to Eynon, there is a need to support local authorities and agencies that historically have had little engagement with MNOs and maximise the leap forward in 4G coverage that SRN will bring. It will be an important litmus test for the Infralink suite of tools. 

She said: “We want to be there to be able to provide a ‘go-to’ best practice and balanced starting point for when those engagements with DMSL start to happen.”

The asset register is a more complex piece of data-driven innovation and will take longer to implement, but there are many pioneers in this area that Infralink is learning from.

Already, south of the Border, West Midlands 5G has established a regional methodology to coordinating digital deployments. And in Scotland, Glasgow City Council has created a telecoms unit and portal to offer industry a single point of entry through which it can deliver 5G infrastructure investment. 

According to Eynon, Infralink will scale up elements from these initiatives so that they are applicable and sustainable at a national level. This will start to join up the landscape of connectivity, which is often thought of as being disjointed, and show Scotland as a coherent investment opportunity for MNOs.

She said: “We’re looking ahead to that 5G future where all technologies are working together in a connectivity ecosystem. Extended 4G roll-out will build off the fibre backbone that is going to be in rural areas as a result of the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband and Reaching 100% (R100) programmes. That in turn will create a strong basis for a 5G overlay network. 

If we can solve some of the current challenges faced by 4G, then it will go a long way to accelerating 5G, with Scotland being ready for the killer 5G business-use cases when they come along.”