As part of its ambition to level up internet access across the UK by investing in gigabit broadband and “busting barriers” to speed up commercial roll-out, the government has revealed that children in more than 1,000 schools are now enjoying next-generation internet speeds.
And as the schools were given a connectivity boost, the government also launched a call for evidence to understand the UK’s future wireless connectivity needs and how it can support the roll-out of 5G and other advanced wireless networks. This includes looking at technologies such as satellite, the internet of things – which will underpin innovations such as driverless cars – and the development of 6G networks.
Across the UK, full-fibre networks stretching for thousands of kilometres are now supplying gigabit broadband to 1,084 schools and thousands of other public buildings that were previously stuck with slow speeds. This means that these establishments can now use, to their full extent, applications such as video-conferencing platforms to host joint classes and assemblies with schools anywhere in the world and online tools that bring lessons to life, such as films and learning games.
Such connectivity will also support teachers to spend more time planning and delivering lessons and less time staring at loading screens.
However, most UK schools are in urban or suburban areas, which already have access to full-fibre broadband. The new investment is focused on schools that currently cannot access speeds of 100Mbps and were not in line to receive an upgrade commercially from broadband companies. Many of them are in rural or hard-to-reach areas, so the government has stepped in to fund their connections.
The areas seeing the most schools upgraded include Norfolk (115), Wolverhampton (81), North Yorkshire (45), the Highlands (37) and Dumfries and Galloway (35). Work is under way to bring gigabit speeds to more schools, with 884 earmarked to be connected by March 2022.
In making its announcement, the UK government published a report exploring the early and expected benefits of gigabit connections for schools. This was based on a survey of 261 schools connected under the government’s Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme. Benefits include: time saving across the whole school, including teachers, office staff and pupils; increased confidence and creativity in the classroom for planning and using technology in lessons; improved pupil experience and opportunity; and staff satisfaction and reduced frustration due to lags and slow speeds.
The more than £210m forecast to be spent by March 2022 is spread over two programmes: £180.8m has been invested as part of the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) programme to help roll out the next generation of faster, full-fibre broadband connections to eligible public buildings including schools, libraries, medical centres, community shops and village halls. The RGC programme aims to assist the government and partner organisations to deliver nationwide gigabit-capable connections in locations that are unlikely to benefit from commercial investment. More than £31m was invested in upgrading connections in schools as part of the RGC.
The government claims it is also on track to connect about 6,800 public buildings across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by the end of March 2022 – including hospitals, GP surgeries, fire stations, leisure centres, museums and libraries. The upgrades are part of an investment of more than £210m by the government to bring next-generation connections to places where internet speeds are slower, such as in rural areas.
The funding is also designed to make it easier for broadband providers to extend the network to surrounding communities, and the government calculates that about 1.5 million more homes and businesses are now within 200m of a fibre optic broadband cable.
The call for evidence on new communications technology will inform the Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, which was announced in June. The strategy will set out a vision for making wireless infrastructure, such as 5G networks, an integral part of the UK economy. It will also anticipate the UK’s wireless connectivity needs for the next decade, set out the role government should play to support investment, and introduce a new policy framework to encourage innovation, competition and investment in future networks.
To inform the strategy, the government has launched a call for evidence to understand, in detail: the future wireless connectivity needs of the UK; the extent to which the UK market is likely to be able to meet those needs over the next decade; how the regulatory and policy framework can best continue to support investment, competition, innovation and adoption of wireless infrastructure; and how the government can support the development and deployment of future wireless networks, including 6G.
The call for evidence seeks responses from a wide range of interested parties, including fixed and mobile network operators and service providers, academics, the public, consumer interest groups and businesses and their trade associations. The government intends to publish the Wireless Infrastructure Strategy in 2022.