Britain needs to up its game on broadband – or creaking digital infrastructure will hit growth

 
Greg Mesch
Over 400,000 small firms struggling on a connection of less than 10Mbps (Source: Getty)
The UK is in the middle of a digital revolution. Over the last decade, the internet has emerged as the lifeblood of the modern world. In towns and cities across the country, businesses, governments and residents are becoming ever more dependent on an abundance of digital services and, consequently, on the wires and cables under our streets that are used to deliver them.
While technology continues to evolve at an astounding pace, with processor power doubling every two years and storage becoming ever cheaper and more efficient, internet speeds have bucked the trend. Despite huge marketing efforts to convince us otherwise, year after year, only small incremental improvements in internet speeds have trickled through to businesses and consumers.
From dial-up to broadband and even today’s “super-fast fibre” connections, our capacity to download and upload data remains restricted by a bottleneck – copper. The UK’s digital infrastructure is overwhelmingly reliant on copper wire, the technology of choice since the first phone lines were laid in the 1880s. Of course, fibre plays a crucial role in these networks – we’d be stuck on dial-up if it didn’t – but more often than not, the reason for our slow speeds, our buffering videos, our endless uploads, is the copper that connects us.
As a nation, we’ve been held back by incumbent network providers determined to convince us that they can deliver an adequate infrastructure foundation for the modern economy. They can’t. Up and down the country, local governments, businesses and consumers have grown tired of the inadequate connectivity they are forced to use – and which has hindered, not supported, the economic and social development they need.
The Federation of Small Businesses, for example, has been a strong critic of the state of our nation’s broadband, or what it calls “The Fourth Utility”. Earlier this month, Ofcom highlighted the fact that just 68 per cent of small to medium-sized businesses have access to superfast broadband in the UK – that’s over 400,000 small firms struggling on a connection of less than 10Mbps, speeds that would have residential customers on the phone to technical support.
It’s an appalling statistic for a country that boasts the largest internet economy in the G20 as a proportion of GDP, and where the internet generates £180bn of output each year – that’s 10 per cent of GDP, more than retail and manufacturing and second only to property. The sector will only grow further – by this time next year, it will be contributing 12.4 per cent of GDP in the UK, according to The Boston Consulting Group.
Just as manufacturing centres rose to prominence during the industrial revolution as roads, canals and railways were built, emerging centres of economic activity and prosperity today depend on state-of-the-art digital infrastructure. Among those best prepared are the growing number of “Gigabit Cities” around the world. Taking control of their digital future, they have attracted private investment to deploy pure fibre infrastructure, capable of supporting the current and future needs of every business, school, hospital and home.
Official Ofcom data shows that those who opt for higher speed services consume more data as a result of using their service more intensively. So the demand for bandwidth, from all sectors, is only going to accelerate over the coming years and we need to ensure our infrastructure can support it.
To compete and succeed, the UK must upgrade quickly. Gigabit Cities form a practical and proven model to follow but infrastructure is not built overnight. This is the future we need to plan for now.

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