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Mind the gap: Southwark's innovative approach to expanding connectivity

Ahead of her participation at the Smart IoT Connect event, Davina Fell, Digital Infrastructure Programme Manager, Southwark Council, talks to Sarah Wray about councils’ connectivity challenges – and opportunities.


Digital infrastructure is fundamental to making smart cities a reality. However, both telecom operators and councils face challenges in making connectivity ubiquitous so that everyone benefits – for instance, several telcos have told SmartCitiesWorld that one common obstacle is that they often don’t have a clear point of contact in cities.


Sarah Wray talks to Davina Fell, Digital Infrastructure Programme Manager, Southwark Council (a borough of London), about how her dedicated role is helping to bridge these gaps and more.


How cities and telcos can better work together is also the theme of our upcoming event, Smart IoT Connect.


Sarah Wray (SW): Digital Infrastructure Programme Manager isn’t a job title we see in cities all that often. What’s the remit?


Davina Fell (DF): When people see my title, they think cloud computing, which is really not what I do. It is a role that sets the strategic direction for telecommunications and smart technology, bringing different departments together, from asset management and organisational transformation to highways, IT and standards.


It’s a far-reaching role, looking at the digital infrastructure we need in place to serve all of our citizens.


Although it is central government that has the power (through funding and regulation) to accelerate the delivery of connectivity, we realised that as a landlord, Southwark Council has been able to use our assets to work with telcos to widen their reach around the borough.


It’s a far-reaching role, looking at the digital infrastructure we need in place to serve all of our citizens.


Other local authorities are following suit and there are around a dozen of us in London championing the progress of digital infrastructure around the borough.


SW: What are your priorities at the moment?


DF: We are one of the largest council housing landlords in the UK, with 52,000 properties. For the last 12 months, my team has managed a complex programme with two fibre providers to roll out fibre in our estates. We’re looking to complete the project by the end of the financial year, which will mean we have managed to connect 52,000 properties in 18 months.


This is also helping to widen the fibre network in Southwark. We have a problem with ‘not spots’ in certain areas. Looking at smart cities and technology going forward, you need that connectivity.


We are working with broadband providers and other telecom companies to install aerials, improve 4G and now embarking on a 5G programme too with mobile network operators (MNOs) to see how we can accelerate that delivery.


The other side of my role is related, looking at the council’s digital transformation and seeing how we can use technology and data a lot better to generate efficiency and improve services to residents. A key part of this is building skills in the council and widening knowledge around how technology can help people in their roles and their services.


We are currently developing our connected community strategy, linking into digital inclusion. There’s no point in having all this technology if residents can’t benefit from it. We are also looking at a ‘living labs’ concept how different departments can use technology to improve their services on the high street and estates.


There’s no point in having all this technology if residents can’t benefit from it.


Standards is another area: looking at what kind of standards and technology we need. Is it a Wi-Fi network to use for sensors, or are we going to concentrate on 4G or possibly 5G going forward? We’re now figuring out what we need to procure, and as a council, we need to identify what common technological standards departments need to work with.


SW: What challenges do you face in working out and deploying this optimal connectivity mix?


DF: If you want to deploy smart cities and technology, you need to make sure that you can cover the whole of the borough and at the moment, that’s not possible. That’s why we’re looking at setting up our own LoRaWAN networks (a type of low-power, wide-area network) as a pilot to cover all our estates dotted around the borough.


It’s difficult at this stage because technology is still in its infancy so we are limited with products and services that suit our needs. We are also limited with connectivity and that will prevent us from scaling up around the borough.


SW: What’s required from the private sector to help you with these challenges?


DF: Many telcos are only looking at locations where the demand is high but our services cover everywhere even the hardest-to-reach areas of the borough. For telcos, some of our ‘not spot’ areas are not financially viable to install that extra equipment so it’s not a priority for them.


Because we are a local authority with many properties, we are working to facilitate additional installations as a priority but it’s not a quick or easy fix.


SW: The theme of your panel is The evolution of the smart city ecosystem. In Toronto, for example, Sidewalk Labs is rolling out a large smart city initiative. Do you see new types of players such as this playing a big role in Europe and the UK in the future?


DF: I haven’t been approached by anyone like that but I am open to hearing from them. Collaboration and learning from everyone’s lessons are important in accelerating ’smart city’ technology. What we need are providers who deliver the best service and value for money.


I know there have been some issues around the Toronto project and one of the things that I’m keen to instil in our project is resident participation. We’re looking to develop a forum where we can get different demographics of residents together to discuss technology, data and how it is used. I can understand that apprehension but there’s the positive side of it and we’re really keen to connect the public with that.


We’re also keen to work with start-ups but it can be difficult due to the nature of their funding. They’re looking for ways to scale up quickly but in local government, there are procurement processes [which can be quite slow].


Some start-ups find it difficult to articulate what their business offer is to us.


Also, some start-ups find it difficult to articulate what their business offer is to us. That’s why I’m keen to work with start-ups and existing businesses on their ideas so that we can trial them and be honest about what does and doesn’t work, and they can develop a more robust product or service that we can use.


SW: What are you hoping to take away from Smart IoT Connect?


DF: We’re one of 33 London boroughs. It’s very easy for us to think about what just Southwark wants. I’m keen to see what other organisations are doing and to understand the failures as well as the successes because a lot of lessons are learned there.


I’d also like to see what kind of outputs organisation that are using technology are getting from it. I am keen, too, to meet with companies that want to work with us on our pilots. This is an exciting time to work in technology in the public sector. There is so much to do.


Register for Smart IoT Connect


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