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Networks to nowhere

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Our roads are crumbling. Our railways are antiquated. Everyone is going on strike. Half the country wants to isolate itself from the rest of the world and now I can’t even get online where I live if I venture too far from my house.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, one of the main things that holds mobile retailing back is connectivity. There is no shortage of ideas as to what can be done with the device, but the networks simply aren’t up to it. That and the batteries – but that’s for another day.

Now, the UK government has waded in, with its own National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) publishing a report which tells us all what we already know: there isn’t enough mobile connectivity across the UK.

Sure, the headlines have centred on how the UK’s 4G coverage is worse than that of Albania, Romania and Peru, but this masks the real issue: mobile connectivity of any sort is, at best, patchy.

Now, before diving in to what this means for retail, a word of clarification. The NIC report – called Connected Future – took the whole NIC a year to write and amounts to 96 pages mainly fluffily telling us all what we already know: that we all treat wireless connectivity as an essential like air, that fast wireless broadband is the fourth utility and that won’t it be lovely when everything is connected?

The UK’s 4G being worse than Albania stat actually comes from a totally separate report carried out by OpenSignal called the State of LTE report. This ranks speed and coverage across the world and the reason we come out so poorly is because we have 4G all over the place, but its not that fast, while Albanians have a small, super fast trial in their capital Tirana so the numbers are skewed.

But I digress. The UK does have a problem with mobile connectivity – and too many users on an antiquated network – which for retailers is a problem. But that isn’t the half of it. What is wrong with mobile in the UK (and elsewhere in the world) is that as user expectations grow, so the need to be connected seamlessly everywhere all the time has grown: and this we don’t yet have.

While it will be lovely to have 4G all over the UK and eventually 5G that will allow super fast downloading as well as connecting everything else to, well, everything else (the internet of things), what we really need is for councils, retailers, government agencies, property owners, telcos and more to start to build out the seamless wifi-3G-4G-5G network that will mean that, like the air that we breathe, connectivity will be everywhere.

Surely this isn’t that far fetched is it? Many homes have fast-to-air broadband wiressless routers and hubs. Many shops, cafes and restaurants too. Telecoms have a maze of antenna all over everywhere. The secret is how to join it all together and make it work smartly as one.

Getting retailers to be wireless throughout all stores and getting local authorities to match it in high streets and around is as crucial as getting network operators to build out 4 and eventually 5G networks everywhere.

And then it all needs to work together as one big super-network. Sadly, this is something woefully missing from the government’s report. Like Brexit, the NHS, Syria and more they don’t have any ideas as to how to make anything happen. While connectivity may seem a luxury compared with the outcome of these other issues, it is in fact the life blood of commerce, retail and business.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday – and now Christmas – may well prove that e and especially m-commerce are here to save retail, and unless we sort this out it is going to stall and, much like all the other infrastructure around us, will cease to be fit for what we need.

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