Talking 5 with Local Public Services Member WeLink
Each month, techUK's Associate Director for Local Public Services, Georgina Maratheftis, interviews a member active in the local government space about their vision for the future of local public services and where digital can make a real difference to people and society. This month we talk to Natalie Duffield, CEO, WeLink and Co-Chair of techUK’s Local Public Services Committee about improving access to connectivity and how it is enabler to improved transformation and innovation for local government, communities and places.
Welcome Natalie. Firstly, tell me more about you, your career and how you got to this position today?
I’m the founding CEO of WeLink Communications UK, a fixed wireless gigabit broadband provider, and I’ve worked in the UK tech sector for the past 30 years.
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked in a wide range of positions across many companies, including several led by Yorkshire entrepreneur Peter Wilkinson – the founder of groundbreaking businesses such as Freeserve, Storm and Sky Bet. I spent time as sales director at Intechnology Managed Services and as a member of the senior management team at parent company Intechnology plc. It’s a vibrant group with lots of opportunity: we’ve worked at the cutting edge of the industry over the last three decades, introducing new technologies to the UK.
I’d include introducing one of the biggest deployments of free Wi-Fi in the UK to more than 1.5m registered users and the deployment of one of the UK’s biggest IoT networks in Coventry as two of my proudest achievements.
The role of CEO of WeLink Communications (UK) Ltd is very rewarding. It’s a really exciting time for us as we’ve grown rapidly from launching Britain’s first wireless gigabit network in Edinburgh to over 21,000 users, to executing our ambitious 2023 plan covering 80,000 premises. 8 other areas are in progress across the UK to reach 400,000 premises and support c.100,000 wholesale connections by the end of 2024.
If I was asked to give advice to young women entering the sector today, I would say don’t give up and listen to your gut instinct!
What is the greatest opportunity for local government when it comes to digital?
Providing greater access to services represents a great opportunity for local government over the next few years. With essential public services moving online, connectivity is a key enabler. Innovation should be at the heart of local government’s approach to this opportunity – particularly when it comes to the last mile connectivity that is required to run online services effectively. Achieving this in a cost-effective way to make the best use of taxpayer money should naturally be a key consideration.
Local authorities can harness fixed wireless broadband to rapidly extend the reach of fibre networks and overcome the logistical barriers faced by traditional fibre deployment. WeLink’s pioneering fixed-wireless mmWave broadband approach offers a greener solution, using above ground, accessible kit that can be constantly upgraded; it transmits a tiny fraction of the power compared to mainstream 5G equipment and delivers speeds of up to 10 gigabits. This gives local authorities a quicker, greener, and cheaper approach to last mile connectivity, opening up access to essential public services to improve social, economic and health outcomes.
What is your vision for the future of local public services and places?
Gigabit broadband is essential infrastructure for the UK that the government are committed to developing at pace across the UK. Local authorities have the power to choose to invest in forward-facing digital infrastructure that can deliver gigabit speeds cost-effectively and at pace.
Local authorities occupy central positions in the communities they serve and have a unique ability to bring people and organisations together. The future of local public services and places begins with a network offering gigabit connectivity that has the power to effectively deliver public and private sector services online.
A gigabit network has multiple uses: it can supply free data to the disadvantaged and help close the digital divide; it can power remote monitoring services for the NHS; it can help entrepreneurs to grow companies; it can drive smart waste collection; it can improve traffic flow and reduce congestion and pollution; it can connect pupils with classrooms and employees with workplaces; it can enable cashless payments for local businesses and it can enhance safety and efficiency with real-time street lighting.
In all these respects, we are very optimistic about the future.
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techUK's Local Public Services Programme provides the forum for local public services to engage with industry to better understand the innovations out there, horizon-scan how the technologies of today and tomorrow can re-imagine local public services and solve some of the most pressing challenges our communities and places face. It also helps connect suppliers with each other, identify new business partnerships to help grow an ever thriving local government ecosystem.
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