James Thomas believes that digital infrastructure investment will unlock billions for industry and drive recovery

The outbreak of Covid-19 has raised many challenges for the construction industry, from maintaining the welfare of staff, to keeping supply chains flowing, all while keeping a watchful eye on cashflow. However, now, as we emerge from the pandemic, big infrastructure projects look to be one way in which the governments of the UK aim to kick-start the economy again and herald a fresh wave of investment.

As has been the case in previous economic crises, Governments across the UK are turning to construction and infrastructure in a bid to kick start job creation and supply chain activity. The UK Government, for example, has announced £100bn for green-recovery infrastructure, with the deadline for ‘shovel ready’ ideas just passed. This fund places an emphasis on projects that will support recovery in the ‘new normal’, while also maintaining the shift towards lower carbon emissions triggered by lockdown. But there is another type of infrastructure investment that could play just as large part in mobilising the industry, greening up our communities and driving growth and productivity – digital.

Throughout the crisis, internet access has proven crucial in supporting the nation’s efforts to adapt. A report by Ofcom even found that during the lockdown, British people were spending a quarter of their day online. Yet despite our reliance on connectivity, the latest research by YouGov found that three-quarters of people who said they had been using their household internet connection more during the pandemic had experienced disruption to their service.

Part of the reason for this is that only around 15 per cent of the country currently has access to a full fibre connection and that is why the Government has set its sights on 100 per cent full fibre being available to every part of the country by 2025. In order to achieve this, we need thousands of boots on the ground now, rolling out many more thousands of kilometres of full fibre network nationwide.

This is the opportunity that is being presented to the construction industry today. Years of long-term, guaranteed work to help roll out a full fibre network that will enable the UK to be competitive for generations to come. Extending national full fibre network coverage to the remaining 85 per cent of the country will be a huge feat requiring deployment at-scale across hundreds of locations simultaneously, with an estimated total investment required of around £30 billion across the telecoms industry. Without a doubt, civil construction firms that are nimble and agile enough to work with network builders will be in hot demand, enabling them to create jobs and grow their businesses with guaranteed work for the next decade.

As the UK’s third national infrastructure platform, CityFibre is one of the network builders pushing ahead with full fibre roll out plans. At present, CityFibre has announced plans to build in 62 towns and cities, and is currently mobilising in 32 of them, with more than 19 different contractors rolling out over £1.2bn of investment. Organisations such as GCU and PMK in Scotland, and IQA, OCU, Heneghans, Granemore Group, CCN, Lite Access, Volker Highways and others across England are already working to deliver this huge project.

These are all firms with a local presence creating local jobs. We want to work with partners who are as ambitious as we are and have a hunger for a good challenge, a problem-solving ethos and pride in a job well done. Many have already stepped up. Take East Midlands-based Granemore Group, for example. It was the first contractor to secure a deal with CityFibre when we launched our flagship £40m Milton Keynes project in 2018. Now, as a result of the build quality and pace it has demonstrated to date, the firm has increased the value and scope of its work, delivering in four cities.

Likewise, others have shown similar promise, including Scottish firm, PMK, which is leading builds in Stirling and Renfrewshire, and Canada headquartered Lite Access, which has secured work totalling over £40m in less than 12 months for Bury St Edmunds, Lowestoft and Cambridge.

While CityFibre has grown alongside these partners, we need more as we extend our builds into new locations. To ensure the majority of these projects are completed by 2025, CityFibre is currently running a procurement process that will award over £1.5bn in contracts across 30 more towns and cities nationally. This is all part of the current phase of our Gigabit City Investment Programme, which will eventually create a private investment of up to £4bn across 100 towns and cities – representing up to eight million homes. This is money that is being invested today, and there is more to come when mobilisation in other towns and cities begins. These awards offer jobs that start immediately, at a time when the employment market is in a state of flux, and will guarantee employment for years to come.

Ultimately, this is a fantastic opportunity for the nation to ‘build, build, build’ in the words of the Prime Minister and leave a legacy that will establish a digital platform for future generations to prosper. However, we appreciate this is an enormous project to deliver, and that is why we are seeking to create genuine partnerships with the construction partners we choose to work with. We appreciate that assembling the right resources, talent and skills is no easy task, so to reinforce that effort we have launched a three-year recruitment and training programme to help fill the expected 10,000 jobs being created. This will help our partners as they fill critical roles in the construction of this full fibre network and help generate employment opportunities up and down the country.

Now is the time to look forward and plan for a new future that learns from the Covid-19 experience. Technology is transforming every industry – and the need for infrastructure to carry it presents a new world of opportunity for the construction sector.

James Thomas is Supply Chain Director, CityFibre, the UK’s third national digital infrastructure platform. With existing networks in more than 60 towns and cities, CityFibre provides wholesale connectivity to multiple business and consumer service providers, local authorities and mobile operators.
For more information, please see: www.cityfibre.com