Making the North East better connected

Making the North East better connected

In the UK’s digital revolution BT works to ensure the North East is ahead of the game. But too many firms in the region have yet to commit, says Simon Roberson, BT regional partnership director.

BT has a longstanding history of investment in urban and rural communities of the North East. The region was first in the UK to have all its phone exchanges upgraded to provide first generation broadband around a decade ago.

More recently, alongside our own commercial rollout of superfast, fibre broadband, we have been working in partnership with local authorities throughout the region to extend our fibre network across Northumberland, Durham, Tees Valley, Sunderland, Gateshead and Newcastle. This has expanded the reach of high speed broadband to the more remote communities, towns and villages and some city areas.

Delivering on this considerable commitment presents many engineering challenges for our local network business, Openreach. It requires the use of a range of technologies to reach otherwise inaccessible areas to ensure as many communities as possible are upgraded to fibre broadband.

Rural geographies present engineers with many difficulties not faced in more urban areas.  Long stretches of winding roads create the need for traffic management, and collapsed and blocked underground ducts are common, meaning engineers often have to build new ducts rather than being able to use existing infrastructure.

Reaching remote places such as Tow Law in Weardale and Rothbury in Northumberland is a great achievement - testament to the dedication of hundreds of Openreach planners and engineers who have been keeping busy, clocking up thousands of man hours to plan and lay thousands of kilometres of underground fibre optic cable.

An accessible and integrated high-speed fibre network will allow the North East to develop smart cities and communities with the latest networks that can record and respond to the public’s needs in real time. They can make public services more efficient, more cohesive, but also more flexible to individual needs.

BT is a broadband pioneer with a proud tradition of continually innovating, as demonstrated by the announcement of a cutting-edge trial of G.fast in Gosforth, where some homes and businesses will benefit from speeds of up to 500mbps. This is state of the art technology being trialled right here in the North East.

Already thousands of North East businesses are using superfast, fibre technology to boost their competitiveness, work more effectively and efficiently and find new markets. But too many firms, still, are missing out because they have not yet joined the fibre broadband revolution.

Premises aren’t automatically connected to superfast broadband once an area becomes ‘enabled’. Individuals need to contact their internet service provider to upgrade. During my conversations with businesses I’d say the understanding around commercially exploiting superfast broadband can, on occasion, be low. Talk about cloud computing and you might see eyes glaze over. Business owners need to be good at catering, farming, manufacturing etc, but some don’t necessarily want to be IT experts as well.

However there is plenty of support to help businesses exploit superfast broadband such as workshops, one-on-one support and information. Government grants are available through Connection Vouchers which businesses can apply for to help with the cost of connecting to fibre broadband. You can find out more about these initiatives through your local BDUK partnership organisation.

Where the future lies

More and more of what we do in our daily lives is moving into the digital world. Much attention is focused on tablets and apps, the hardware and software, rather than the power behind them. As we raise our demand for high definition video and all-singing, all-dancing apps, our appetite for ubiquitous, fast and high quality broadband increases exponentially.

Here in the North East already around 750,000 homes and businesses can access high speed, fibre broadband and those signing up to a service is increasing steadily.

Interestingly, much of the bandwidth in the future won’t be consumed by humans at all. The so-called ‘internet of things’ (IoT), means that many of our technologies will start to talk to each other. Almost anything in our homes could be connected via a sensor, radio frequency identification tag or computer internet address. We can already download apps allowing us to control remotely the heating and lighting in our home from a smartphone or laptop.

In the future we can start to use these smart technologies to look after our elderly relatives, conserve energy and even order our bread and bananas from the supermarket before we know we have run out.

With the explosion of connected things, our homes could eventually become intelligent enough to distinguish between family members and guests within physical spaces and adapt to individual needs based on biometrics like fingerprints, body temperatures and even the rhythm of our own heartbeats.

In the very near future as you walk through your home, a small device worn around the wrist will authenticate your identity by pairing itself to your specific heartbeat, allowing your home to adjust automatically the lighting and room temperature, and to play custom music based on personalised preferences and pre-configured profiles.

If we are working from home, it will ensure that our workspaces and customer data are kept safe and secure and we can connect with our colleagues anywhere in the world using high definition video. This may seem far fetched, but affordable and wearable technologies are already here with things like smart wrist bands which track steps taken, calories burned and even sleep patterns.

This digital revolution is, and will continue to, open up the North East to the world.