Why the government should invest more in digital technology

Research highlights that Britain’s ability to cultivate a digital society is dependent on national and local government injecting further investment into digital technology.

Providing digital usage and custom preserves it’s concurrent trajectory in the UK, there will be 156 million ‘internet of things’[1] connections[2]. The UK’s digital economy represents 12.4% of it’s GDP, the largest of any G20 nation, and projected increases in broadband speeds could add £17 billion to it’s economy by 2024[3]. These figures may suggest healthy digital conditions for the UK, however these projected figures are dependent on economical investment relative to technological innovation. This simply is not happening.

The majority of the government’s investment in the digital space market has been in ‘next generation’ substructure, therefore neglecting development and innovation[4]. Meanwhile, international competitors are becoming increasingly ambitious, exemplified by their move to superfast and ultrafast broadband coverage[5]. Consequently, the UK have started to fall behind: ranked 9th out of the 18 countries for 4G outdoor population[6] and 17th out of the 19 countries for access to full fibre connection[7]. Nearly 25% of rural premises in the UK do not have a decent broadband service[8]. Most notably, South Korea has 96% availability for 4G mobile, compared to the UK’s 66%[9].

Many small and medium businesses in the UK have their digital connectivity needs unmet. In 2016, 20% did not have access to broadband speeds of 30 Mbps (‘superfast’) and around 8% were unable to access speeds of 10 megabits per second (Mbps)[10]. The Government made some changes to the Electronic Communications Code to improve the ease of rolling out digital infrastructure in 2016. However, many key infrastructure stakeholders consider that progress too slow and uphold further scope for reform[11].

The underfunding would be less problematic if digital technology was not so significant to the UK’s infrastructure being productive. The UK’s internet usage is the largest off all the G-20 countries[12]. Britain’s businesses, banks and governments use the internet for data storage, connectivity and operation and this has significant implications to UK electric supplies, national rail, roads, bridges and wind turbines[13]. Furthermore, the use of mobile apps and machine learning cannot be underestimated in Britain, their ability to collate real-time data on asset condition and maintenance needs allows for the smooth operation of infrastructure. Significantly, communication networks in the UK has contributed more to Britain’s economic growth and social inclusion than it has in any other European country[14].

Ultimately, modest governmental investment in digital innovation is no longer acceptable. In the past, the UK has had the foresight and ambition to connect everyone to electricity, water and transport networks. The benefits today are obvious. The same ambition is now needed for future digital infrastructure.

A coordinated approach is essential. At present, digital infrastructure decisions are fragmented and entwined with the wider policy interests of numerous Government departments and agencies[15]. Digital investment is often too easily deprioritised, however a digital champion within Government should hold relevant departments and agencies to account and ensure the provision of digital infrastructure programmes.

Likewise, local government needs to be more proactive. Digital communications bring significant benefits to local areas. Local authorities must do more to encourage the deployment of infrastructure. The National Infrastructure Commission suggest facilitating planning permission for the investment of UK needs without long delays, as the current planning process is time consuming and costly.

National and local government must foster world class digital connectivity that is seamless, ubiquitous, reliable and resilient. This will promote leading-edge applications at an early date and can promote innovation in infrastructure systems such as networks of sensors, smart appliances and the combination of vastly improved data and machine learning to promote better infrastructure operation, lower costs and increased efficiency.

[1] The Internet of things is the network of physical devices, vehicles, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity which enable these objects to collect and exchange data.

[2] Brown, Eric (13 September 2016). “Who Needs the Internet of Things?”. Linux.com

[3] ibid

[4] Ofcom (2015), Strategic Review of Digital Communications; Ofcom (2016), Making communications work for everyone, initial conclusions from the Strategic Review of Digital Communications

[5] Ibid

[6] Ofcom (2016), The International Communications Market Report; Connected Nations 2016

[7] Ofcom (2016), The International Communications Market Report

[8] National Infrastructure Commission report, Congestion, Capacity, Carbon: Priorities for national infrastructure, 2017, p.44

[9] OpenSignal (2017), The State of LTE (June 2017). Accessed at: https://opensignal.com/reports/2017/06/state-of-lte

[10] Ofcom (2016), Connected Nations 2016

[11] National Infrastructure Commission report, Congestion, Capacity, Carbon: Priorities for national infrastructure, 2017, p.53

[12] http://www.consultancy.uk/news/1988/bcguk-internet-economy-the-largest-of-the-g20

[13] National Infrastructure Commission report, Congestion, Capacity, Carbon: Priorities for national infrastructure, 2017, p.53

[14] Oxfam, 2013; Shy, O. (2010), A Short Survey of Network Economics, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Papers.

[15] Ofcom (2015), Strategic Review of Digital Communications

Article by Raja Hanna


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