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Infrastructure blog

Digital communications and infrastructure dependencies

13 March 2017

In the latest in our series of blogs looking at the ongoing National Infrastructure Assessment, we consider what growing connectivity means for our physical infrastructure, disruptive new technologies and increasing interdependencies.

Digital communications and infrastructure dependencies

The UK currently has one of the most advanced digital communication infrastructure systems in Europe. Considerable investment made early on has driven the UK’s strong e-commerce position. And recent UK policy developments – investment in 5G research and development, superfast broadband deployment, the recently launched Digital Strategy – indicate that the Government is keen to build on this position and enable better connectivity for people and businesses. But we cannot look at increasingly ubiquitous digital connectivity without considering the technological changes this enables and the impacts on our existing physical infrastructure.

The increasing pervasiveness of digital and ‘smart’ technology, enabling collection and analysis of big data, is to have a profound impact on infrastructure needs, demands and delivery across all sectors – and is only likely to increase with future innovation. 5G technology has the potential to realise or enable a number of high-value use-cases, including autonomous vehicles, Internet of Things, smart cities, and real-time infrastructure operational data. However, consideration should be given to the impacts on other exiting infrastructure, like transport systems and particularly electricity generation.

5G ambitions

Precisely what 5G is, and what it will do versus existing generations of connectivity, is as yet undefined.

Currently, it is anticipated that 5G technology will mean seamless connectivity, ultra-fast and ultra-reliable, transmitting massive amounts of data with virtually no lag. And by 2050 it is expected that the main access points to data services will be through mobile devices and the internet of things based on widespread coverage of 5G, or other mobile broadband.

To date there has been strong political ambition for the UK to be a world leader in 5G technology deployment, reflected in Ofcom Strategic Review of Digital Communications 2016 and the NIC Connected Future report. However, the desire for expediency in delivery must be balanced with the need to ensure implementation of a system that can meet long-term economic, social and environmental needs. As with existing digital connectivity efforts must be made to ensure comprehensive coverage. This will require increased densification of supporting infrastructure, and changes to planning frameworks should be made with this in mind.

Infrastructure interdependencies

The ICE-led National Needs Assessment (NNA) highlighted the importance of considering infrastructure interdependencies between sectors as part of the NIA, and as infrastructure becomes increasingly ‘smart’ it can be expected that these interdependencies will deepen.

For example, digitally enabled infrastructure, ‘always on’ connectivity, and the rise of big data have considerable electricity generation and transmission implications. The National Resource Defence Council reports that in 2013 US data centres consumed energy equivalent to 34 500MW coal fired power stations, managing the storage and sharing of the huge quantities of data requires policy action if data demand and ultimately energy to support are not to grow beyond sustainable levels This places considerable pressure upon our existing generation and transmission infrastructure, particularly in the context of the growing electrification of transport and heat. However, smart electricity infrastructure can help to balance demand with new electricity generation coming onto the grid, enabling integration of renewables and electricity storage.

This is a theme considered in more detail in ICE’s upcoming State of the Nation: Digital Transformation, published on 22 March. This year’s report looks at the role of new technologies and better use of data through the whole life-cycle of infrastructure, delivering better outcomes for infrastructure users, and the challenges industry, clients and policy makers need to address in an increasingly digitally enabled world.

To find out more about the report, email the ICE Policy team at [email protected]

  • Kelly Forbes, policy manager at ICE