Moving from ambition to action on digital infrastructure

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Parliament and Internet Conference, to discuss how the UK can meet its ambitious targets to get gigabit capable broadband into every home and business across the UK by 2025.

The UK should lead the way the fourth industrial revolution in the same way we did in the first. To get there, connectivity matters. It matters for levelling up too.

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I grew up in Shropshire, the birthplace of the first industrial revolution, and it was the West Midlands that powered forward that incredible period of growth and innovation. There were multiple factors that supported the industrial revolution in the region, including talented people creating new technologies, and access to abundant raw materials, but one thing has always struck me as important, and that’s the role of the canals.

Before the canals were built, people had to transport their goods by mule or packhorse. Can you imagine trying to transport delicate consumer goods like ceramics by mule? And yet a little further north of Shropshire, in the Staffordshire potteries, they were having to do just that. The building of the canals transformed businesses’ abilities to transport large volumes of goods quickly and safely. Without this connectivity, the industrial revolution may have happened elsewhere. It certainly wouldn’t have happened as quickly.

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Now we sit at the start of the fourth industrial revolution, and it’s no longer the waterways that will power new technologies and deliver new products and services. It’s digital connectivity.

The good news is that government has a big, bold ambition to deliver gigabit capable connectivity to every household and business around the country by 2025. The impact of this could be incredible:

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The clock to 2025 is ticking. To hit this big, bold target on time there must be an urgent move from ambition to action.

Action is needed in four key areas:

  • Legislation: positive action has already been taken with the Telecoms Infrastructure Bill enabling access to tenant properties, but legislation needs to pass this year if the UK is to hit the 2025 target. And further policy change will be needed on planning laws for 5G and mandating access to new builds.
  • Investment: the £5bn that has already been announced to connect the hardest-to-reach areas is a huge step forward to help support the tens of billions the private sector will invest. his £5bn must be used well to focus on the areas that are most difficult to connect to prevent overbuild. Furthermore, government should review business rates to incentivise business investment and – at least – roll over existing full fibre business rates exemptions, which are set to run out in 2022.
  • Talent: getting new connections in the ground requires people. Lots of people. Tech UK estimate 13,000 engineering visits per day will be needed to hit the 2025 target. Businesses have a role to play here, in training their people up, but there is also a need to ensure that the new immigration system supports the technology sector.
  • Demand: this can’t just be about building new connections. None of the above matters without uptake. Businesses and households also need to take up and invest in their own connectivity. From a business perspective this should be linked with the broader push to invest in innovation adoption and can learn from initiatives such as Be the Business and Business Basics.

For more information and detail on the CBI’s policy thinking please read:

Ready Set Connect: a detailed analysis of the policy landscape for digital infrastructure and the opportunities for business. 

Ostrich to Magpie: to see where the UK stands on innovation adoption, and what businesses and policymakers can do to get better (and Be More Magpie!)

Tech Tracker: the latest trends in business technology adoption.

CBI members can find out more about our innovation and digital policy work, and get involved, through MyCBI: https://www.cbi.org.uk/my-cbi/policy-focus/innovation-and-digital/

Published by felicityburch

Felicity Burch is the Director of Innovation and Digital at the Confederation of British Industry. She is also an adviser to the trade association, Sharing Economy UK.

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