Time to double-down on digital infrastructure

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher

“In these exceptional times, the most precious commodity is confidence. Government has a golden opportunity with the National Infrastructure Strategy to set out an ambitious but deliverable plan for the nation’s economic infrastructure.”  

James Heath, National Infrastructure Commission CEO, commenting earlier this month is right. The coronavirus pandemic has not only presented the Government with a “golden opportunity” to deliver on its ambitious commitment to delivering gigabit-capable broadband across the country by 2025 and 5G by 2027, but it has brought the unprecedented need to deliver on it.  

By focusing on these core manifesto promises, the Government would do well to use the National Infrastructure Strategy later this autumn to double-down on its efforts to deliver the urgent digital infrastructure improvements needed across the UK. This renewed effort would play an instrumental role in supporting the economic recovery of the UK, and for the worst affected regions such as the North, Yorkshire and the Midlands.   

Covid-19 and the accelerated demand for “levelling-up”  

Even before the pandemic and the shift to working-from-home, improving digital connectivity in the North and the Midlands was crucial to the Government’s chances of “levelling-up” the country. 

There is a host of evidence – not least in the articles published by Digital Tories – which shows the direct benefits that would be felt by regions across the UK from the delivery of improved digital connectivity. Enhanced levels of productivity, greater economic activity and more employment opportunities are just three. 

Furthermore, enhanced digital connectivity delivers wider socio-economic benefits too, such as the opportunity for remote healthcare services, real-time data sharing and a greater scope for the use of artificial intelligence. However, for some parts of the country, simply getting decent broadband coverage was a challenge throughout the lockdown.  

Several ‘Blue Collar Conservative’ MPs have called on the Government to scrap its plans for HS2 (considering the pandemic) and have made the case that in order to truly deliver on the levelling-up agenda, delivering high speed broadband should take precedence.  

Figures from the New Economics Foundation show that 40 percent of HS2’s benefits would flow to workers commuting to London, with only 18-10 percent going to workers in the North and the Midlands. The Government should consider re-prioritising the money, energy and attention from projects like HS2 and spend it on speeding up the delivery of digital infrastructure.  

Supporting economic recovery 

Delivering on its ambitious targets for the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband would be a great way for the Government to support the UK’s economic recovery; delivering economic output, capital investment and greater job opportunities are some of the benefits that would be materialised across the whole country.   

A recent report published by the Centre for Policy Studies found that a faster rollout of 5G infrastructure “would help deliver a quicker and stronger economic recovery for the UK.” The report supports the argument that the delivery of 5G across the country would significantly help the UK’s economic recovery, by generating £34.1bn in economic output if the Government meets its ambitious target of doing so by 2027. This is more pronounced in the long-term, whereby the access to digital services and reliable connectivity – that has been essential to the country’s response to Covid-19 – will be integral to the resilience, economic security and productivity of our four regions.  

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs; the characteristics of large digital infrastructure projects – such as their long-term nature, their complexity and often their interdependence – means the rollout of 5G and of gigabit-capable broadband offer significant opportunities for job creation in the face of record unemployment. A report by WPI Economics estimates that the rollout of 5G will create over 600,000 jobs in the UK by 2030, with potentially even greater productivity benefits being materialised in the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom.  

The challenges facing the country are epic in scale; the Government’s interventions and policy measures to support the economy have been historic in nature. It is therefore reasonable to call for an unprecedented and unwavering focus on digital infrastructure delivery. While there is a myriad of technical, regulatory and political reasons behind the delays to the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband, the coronavirus pandemic should not, and cannot be one of them. 

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This piece was written for Digital Tories

Tories must be the Party of tech

GUEST POST: Anita Boateng is a Senior Director at FTI Consulting and a Councillor in Redbridge. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow on Twitter

The Conservative Party has never shied away for technological innovation. It was Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century Tory Prime Minister and godfather of One Nation Conservatism, who embraced the first industrial revolution and remade conservatism in his time. It is no exaggeration to say the same forces remain alive today. 250 years after the invention of steam-powered machines, we are undergoing another technological revolution. 

From Zoom catch ups and WhatsApp group chats to accessing banking and the latest news on the go, our relationship with technology has already changed so much in the past two decades. In the midst of a global pandemic, thanks in large part to our mobile networks, we’ve been able to stay close to our loved ones, access important services and work more flexibly than we ever imagined we could. 

Digital connectivity is poised to make another monumental leap forward with the advent of 5G. 5G is not simply about speed. Imagine drones co-operating to carry out search and rescue missions, self-driving cars communicating seamlessly with one another and wearable fitness devices alerting doctors in real-time in a medical emergency. These innovations will transform our way of life.

The job of the Conservative Party and this government is to ensure that all parts of the country benefit from the new revolution that could bring about immense social and economic change. And while this pandemic has highlighted how much some of us benefit from mobile networks, the experience has also shown we have work to do in delivering the benefits of connectivity to everyone in the country. 

To achieve a connected future for everyone, our mobile infrastructure needs a reboot. We need to upgrade existing equipment and install new towers to extend coverage. But the legislation designed to make all this possible – the Electronic Communications Code – isn’t working. The Code was introduced in 2017 with the intention to make it easier and cheaper for providers to make the changes the UK needs to keep pace with the rest of the world. 

Unfortunately, that is not happening quickly enough. The relationship between industry and its landowner-hosts needs repairing. Disputes over rents are making agreements impossible. Infrastructure isn’t being upgraded or rolled out effectively, and consumers are not getting the coverage they want and need. There’s no doubt we need to get things moving if the Government is going to achieve its 5G ambitions. 

That is why the industry joined together to launch Speed Up Britain, a new cross-party campaign calling for action to give Britain the mobile network it deserves. The campaign provides an opportunity for industry, landowners, their representatives and government to come together to find a solution to this problem and make progress towards delivering 5G and other new technologies. Looking again at the law will be an important component of delivering real change.

But this is not just about central government. Poor connectivity doesn’t just hinder our ability to navigate the modern world; it can hold back local businesses and services in parts of the country that need it the most. Councillors, metro mayors and MPs will all have insight into the challenges of mobile connectivity in their area, and what they would like to see change.

We all have a part to play in fulfilling the promise of a truly connected nation. If we work together, we can ensure the Conservative Party is once again at the forefront of delivering a digital revolution for all.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Digital Tories.