South Yorkshire Ubiquitous Next Generation Broadband

The investment made by Digital Region to create a ubiquitous next generation broadband infrastructure could reinvigorate local industry and make South Yorkshire one of Europe’s most attractive and dynamic business environments. Senior business development manager Richard Jepson says he is looking forward to meeting this challenge. After all, they’ve solved this problem before and now they can apply that experience and do an even better job.

The first step of the project is to identify the scale of the task, as on the face of it areas like South Yorkshire have a mountain to climb before they can catch up with the rest of the field in Britain’s competitive digital landscape. Typical of regions hit by the decline of traditional manufacturing industries in the UK, there’s high unemployment, a potential workforce with the wrong skills and a populace that finds itself on a lower than average income. Though local universities create thousands of high value science and technology graduates, few choose to settle in the region. The roads that brought commerce into the region now serve as an efficient brain drain.  Businesses that operate in the local market find themselves competing for customers with a less than average amount of disposable income. It is a tough region in which to compete. Creating one of the best large scale communications networks in Europe will reverse this decline and Digital Region is taking responsibility for making this improvement.

In the digital age a state-of-the-art communications upgrade can rejuvenate a region just as the road and rail network brought prosperity to the region in the industrial age. It could encourage more graduates to stay and set up businesses in the area. But as with the motorway building programmes of the 19th and 20th century, the construction of an internet superhighway involves considerable challenges.

Digital Region is the modern road builder. The ‘tarmac’ it is laying is a 1200 kilometre ring of fibre ultimately connecting all 54 local communications exchanges and more than 1,500 street cabinets in South Yorkshire.

The project is funded by Yorkshire Forward, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the four local authorities of South Yorkshire. Thales, a partner of Digital Region, has also invested in the project, which is a £91m build of which £27m came from the ERDF. The building programme is scheduled to take three years, with Phase 1 aimed at covering 80 per cent of South Yorkshire by May 2012. Any revenue raised will be re-invested into running the network and Digital Region says it aims to use any surplus to grow the network coverage up to 100 per cent. Thales is responsible for the design, build and operation of the Digital Region network and leads a consortium including Alcatel-Lucent and K-Com.

The new VDSL-based network that Digital Region is building represents a flexible product-set on which multiple service providers can each provide their own single physical connection, using their own layer 2 VPN, based on VPLS technology. These private lanes on the superhighway give the service providers the ability to provide high tech services to consumers that were previously unfeasible.

So Digital Region builds the infrastructure and local internet service providers are akin to freight managers who create the services that will be enjoyed by local business. A key commercial driver is based around ISP’s not having to invest unbundling equipment in all 54 exchanges in South Yorkshire. This is complemented by the technical attraction for service providers in that they can take advantage of private clouds based on VPLS (layer 2) technology, which they can then retail or sell on through their white-label services.

Consumers and businesses will be largely oblivious to the technicalities of private ‘IP-cloud’ functionality facilitated by VPLS. The concepts that will stimulate them into greater economic activity will be the applications such as video-conferencing, for example, with its many offshoots like telemedicine. The bottom line is that the delivery of quality sound and images at high speed could provide productivity boosts in business and the public sector. Consumers, for example, are more likely to buy entertainment from service providers. Meanwhile improved connectivity is more likely to provide local traders with access to new markets as the speed of access to their web sites improves, and the flow of information with customers and suppliers increases. Faster, more powerful networks mean that online customers are more likely to stumble across suppliers in South Yorkshire as they search the web for goods and services.

The efficiencies in business processes and fine tuning of the supply chain will make this region a better place for trading, making local companies more competitive. It also aims to make South Yorkshire a more attractive place where other industries could settle, bringing much needed investment into the region.

Meanwhile in the public sector the project has equally big ambitions. The ability to handle images and video more effectively will make telemedicine viable for delivering some medical consultations and other services. If patients can receive more care at home, it means a saving on journey times for both patients and medical staff and saves health service resources. Schools, on the other hand, can benefit from the deployment of next generation broadband, making virtual 1-2-1 lessons more effective and widening the scope of expertise, with the potential for instance of enabling experts from other regions to deliver lessons remotely. Councils will be able to address their stakeholders more effectively and deliver information more comprehensively. Digital Region even suggests that the work of Job Centres could be enhanced giving job seekers better advice and access to electronic job boards.

The fast network will also offer a layer of intelligence onto other infrastructure builders, such as the Highways Agency, Network Rail and the National Grid. The metering and control of the roads, rail, water and electricity networks will also bring about greater efficiencies, lower running costs and a boost in the provision of services.

The days when these dividends begin to become apparent are some way off however, and the economic benefits will not materialise overnight. It would be unrealistic to assume that the minute construction of the network is completed in 2012, the economy will immediately be the strongest in Britain.

But just as rail and road links brought prosperity to the region in the industrial revolution, the Digital Region dividend could eventually catalyse a new explosion in trade and commerce. The reaction may be a slow burn but Digital Region is confident that it will create handsome returns.


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