VIRTUS Meets the City of London's Strategic Infrastructure Advisor

Written by VIRTUS Data Centres Published 2014-09-19 08:00:00

On the eve of the first ever Connectivity Summit hosted by Boris Johnson and the Greater London Authority, VIRTUS took the opportunity to sit down with Steven Bage – City of London Infrastructure  Advisor – to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing London and its telecommunications infrastructure.

In the light of increasing pressure being placed upon on the City's telecommunication and utilities infrastructure, Steven's role was set up 9 years ago to ensure that the City of London continued to provide the optimum environment for businesses and property developers with respect to infrastructure.  Steven is responsible for day-to-day issues of guaranteeing the delivery of telecoms and utility services for business, residents and property developers, as well as lobbying Government regulators to ensure sufficient investment is made to ensure that the City's infrastructure networks remain world class.  What is clear is that the issue of investment, or lack of it, is reaching a head in the City of London.  The City currently benefits from 11 independent fibre networks, mainly installed in the late 90's, which provide fast dedicated "leased line" connections to businesses. However, these connections are too expensive for residents and business owners, who are forced to use slower ADSL copper broadband line as fibre broadband is not yet available in the Square Mile.  London needs to continue to invest in its infrastructure to make sure it stays ahead of rival cities.

What is the current state of London's telecommunications network?

In 2009 the City of London published "An assessment of the City's ICT Infrastructure". The report stated that

"…the ICT infrastructure in the City was 'as good as anywhere in the world', and above the necessary threshold to maintain the attractiveness of the City to the financial services sector in comparison with other global financial centres. The City was found to have sufficient depth of network connectivity and enough data centre providers to offer network resilience and security to businesses in the City and to accommodate future demand."

That being said, what was clear from our talk with Steven, is that there are mounting challenges in the face of technological advancements, digital trends and growth within the City which need to be addressed now in order for London to remain ahead of the competition. The Mayor of London's Connectivity Summit has been designed to tackle these issues. Ahead of the summit, Steven kindly took the time to outline some of the key topics that would be discussed by the Mayor and the advisory board.

The "Digital Divide"

With approximately 400,000 workers in the City, the demand for reliable, fast and secure connections is colossal.  To date, fibre providers have concentrated on provision of leased line connections for the larger businesses, meaning that smaller companies' connectivity requirements are often overlooked. This has created a digital divide between large companies which can afford to use leased lines (often costing over £500 per month) and those who can't. Steven points out that this has "left a vast number of SME, growing enterprises relying on ADSL, copper broadband" which, with average ADSL connections in the City being as low as 2.0 mbps, is massively below requirement.

There is a current unwillingness from BT to expand their fibre broadband offering into the City as the business model they use is reliant on a balance of commercial and residential use. However, BT are currently running trials to see what can be done for multi-occupancy buildings and "The City of London is currently in positive discussions [with providers] to make sure SMEs receive what they need".

One way in which the government has attempted to support smaller enterprises is with the Connection Vouchers Scheme. The government has pledged to invest £24 million to improve access to fast broadband for businesses. Companies are able to obtain a grant for up to £3000 for upgrading broadband connections. With only 10% of the allocated money currently assigned to projects, it is clear that the scheme's impact has not been as far-reaching as hoped, possibly due to the lack of fibre broadband availability or the short timeframe of the funding period (Nov 2013- March 2015), meaning that some SMEs may still be tied into existing contracts. As a result, the City of London has called upon the government to extend the funding deadline – due to end in March 2015 – to ensure businesses can take full advantage of the money available.


 "The City has always existed on Communications"

Improving coverage and reducing blackspots in the Capital has been one of Boris Johnson's primary reasons for holding the Summit and the City of London will continue to support the Mayor in this area. The need to gain the support of the property industry has been outlined as one of the major solutions as there is currently limited consideration for the requirements of digital communication.

Provision of telecom infrastructure into new developments remains problematic in the City of London and issues with wayleaves and coordination of street works in particular continue to pose major problems.  The City of London alongside the GLA will be looking to address these issues which will require the buy in of the property industry.

Alongside including infrastructure into the planning of new building projects, the City of London is also exploring concession arrangements for the use of the City's furniture to facilitate mobile operator's deployment of 4G network across the City. This would involve facilitating access for wireless providers to install base stations in privately owned buildings. Discussions have also included using street lighting posts to house mini masts but these plans are very much in their early stages.

The importance of improving connectivity across the Capital

When asked to highlight the biggest advancement London will have to embrace over the coming years, Steven was quick to highlight the advent of Smart Networks as simultaneously being the biggest challenge and opportunity for London.

We have highlighted the wide and varied potential of the Internet of Things recently and Steven was quick to point out that this type of advancement "can only be achieved with a reasonably fast and reliable data connection".

Darren Watkins, VIRTUS Sales Director commented: "The importance of high bandwidth, last-mile connectivity has increased dramatically over the past couple of years. The Internet of Things and adoption of cloud infrastructures are attracting all size of enterprise customers to utilise colocation services such as those provided by VIRTUS, to ensure availability of these critical, often revenue generating, applications.  The more processing that is required centrally in a colocation facility assists with the 'bandwidth bottleneck' that exists, and gives the last-mile connectivity infrastructure the chance to catch up with the adoption of colocated cloud services available at data centre like ours. To-date we already have a range of SME customers that benefit from our broad connectivity portfolio to satisfy their growing demands".