Is Manchester ready to rival London?
In what is referred to as the ‘Levelling Up Agenda,’ the UK Government has pledged to address some of the nation’s regional imbalances. This is to ensure that businesses, individuals, towns and cities have the same opportunities. Part of this scheme addresses discrepancies in regional building programmes and transport networks, along with steps that can be taken to even things out. Communication is also very much at the heart of the agenda as it is integral to all things IoT, smart technologies and automation.
Since I’ve been working in the UK market for the past 3 ½ years, I have been particularly curious about its regional cities. I have loved visiting cities that I had never been to before and taking some memorable journeys (a train journey from Edinburgh to London is one for which I hold fond memories). Curiously as a person from a small fishing town, it’s the cities where I find myself most comfortable. I feel lucky to work for a company where we can help fix big issues that are present in cities. For example, the work we are doing to deliver mobile connectivity for the entire London Underground network will have a profound impact on improving the lives of millions of its citizens and commuters.
So it's in cities where I ply my trade. As I pass through the UK it’s clear that there is a divide and rivalry between London, Manchester and the other cities.
However, there are some really good things happening outside of London.
Outside of London
Manchester has a strong claim to position itself as UK's strongest alternative to London for foreign direct investment. There is a significant infrastructural investment at a level well above other cities outside of London. The reasons for this are obvious and include:
- An economy worth £60billion,
- A population of 7m people within 1-hours drive,
- An airport that serves 200 cities and 27m people annually,
- A young population with 100,000 students,
- 1,500 private businesses
- Residential property prices are 40% lower
The high-speed rail link (HS2) between London and Manchester is no surprise then. With expectant travel times reducing to 1 hour when operational, it will provide a major boost to the economic output which is expected to double to £120bn by 2050.
The construction industry is booming despite delays and supply chain issues brought about by the pandemic and Brexit. An array of ambitious development projects intended to rejuvenate the city are now kicking off in earnest. One of these includes the long-awaited and much anticipated St Michael’s Tower, a £250million mixed-use facility backed by former footballer, Garry Neville. Other high-profile projects include converting the former Granada TV studios into an international music venue and refurbishing the Grade 2 listed Ancoats Dispensary building into residential dwellings. Along with this is developing a large green space in the city centre (Mayfield Park) that will also comprise two large commercial buildings and a multi-story car park. Manchester has also secured £69.5million to augment its transport network as part of the “Transforming Cities Fund”, intended to enhance productivity by investing in public and sustainable transport infrastructure in English cities. The redevelopment of Manchester Picadilly is expected to create 40,000 jobs and 13,000 new homes.
Walking around Manchester it is clear that the investment in construction has not just started now. The city is a truly modern one with a skyline similar to many European capitals. I have observed numbers of operational cranes there in far excess of Dublin at its peak.
There is no doubt that Manchester is a great city. It has a vibrant nightlife, friendly people and a lower cost of living than London. There is also good transport and a genuine 'city’ feel. Of course, it's also got a great sporting history and is home to two well-supported football teams with a global fan base.
However, I can't help thinking that for Manchester to truly become a major rival to London, it needs to do more to prepare for its expected hyper-growth.
Key to the success of Manchester, as a destination to work and live and reach its full potential, is next-generation performing real estate for businesses and residents. Construction has a huge part to play. Historically one of the least digitised sectors, construction companies are having to embrace IoT-based technologies for productivity, efficiency and profitability reasons. Shared transport networks, on the other hand, not only require seamless 5G for interconnectivity between vehicles and roadside furniture, but require seamless 4G coverage to facilitate online payments at EV charge points, not to mention public safety if they are to be fit for purpose.
Construction, however, is one of the most poorly served industries when it comes to reliable mobile coverage. Building sites are either blighted by connectivity issues caused by deep foundations, surrounding tall buildings, industrial scaffolding and the high quotas of raw materials. These issues can interfere with signal transmissions or being completely off-grid.
To complicate things further, the connectivity requirements of large-scale developments such as those going on in Manchester are constantly moving goalposts. What is deemed sufficient one week quickly becomes obsolete as the project advances and exterior frameworks are filled with glass and/or metal facades, held together with reinforced concrete and lined with specialist insulation products, presenting even more challenges.
Once built the problem doesn’t go away. For those who will occupy these buildings, it will be a negative experience.
Seamless mobile coverage is not only essential for operability and performance. Ubiquitous mobile coverage is becoming increasingly integral to safety-critical communications as the UK’s emergency services network (ESN) is upgraded from TETRA to 4G. Whilst the new network will permit the use of digital technologies like video and body cameras, the downside is its shorter propagation rates. What this means in practical terms is that without an assured 4G signal, emergency response teams will not be able to effectively manage an incident and the ability to dial 999 could be compromised. The buck doesn’t stop there either. 4G is integral to machine safety because the trigger mechanism for onsite equipment such as moving scaffolding or driver-less vehicles is SMS.
Such is the scale of many inner-city developments, they warrant investment in mobile connectivity solutions during construction. This will likely mean deploying Private Mobile Networks during construction and switching to public mobile networks once built.
Private Mobile Networks are built for localised areas and specific purposes. They are not connected to publicly available Mobile Network Operators. On a construction site, they will provide private SIM to private SIM call connectivity and full access to the internet for broadband connectivity. The network is built and managed for the user by solution providers like Vilicom.
Those that are cloud-based are best, so minimal infrastructure is needed. They can easily be reconfigured in line with coverage requirements. Having total network control on a large construction site would assure uninterrupted coverage for digitised technologies whilst also guaranteeing that health and safety regulations are adhered to.
Once a building project has been completed, reliable mobile connectivity is still needed. Not only to attract would-be tenants but to be prepared for the connectivity needs of its occupants and for operating a smart building.
Manchester can catapult itself into a leading rival to London and it will not be found lagging if it truly gets its connectivity right. The world is changing at a pace and connectivity is how this industrial revolution will be shaped. 4G and 5G (and future generations) are the enablements of this revolution and Manchester can be a leader here as it transforms its city.
It will need to make these investments now, which requires different thinking from the private and public sectors. This is so that real estate for commercial and residential purposes is built with the occupier's experiences in mind, for as long as that infrastructure is in place. This takes vision and belief. Without a city-wide ethos of digitisation amongst those that are building this infrastructure of the future, it will miss this golden chance.
The ‘ Levelling Up Agenda’ can be the springboard and Manchester will be working hard to build on this initiative and become a true rival to London. If it gets this right, then it can truly be at the centre of this 4th industrial revolution, much like it was at the centre of the UK's first one in the early 19th century.
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