LONDON is now hosting its first ever Technology Week – an opportunity to “showcase London’s role as the digital capital of Europe”. It is right to celebrate the success of London’s tech industry. Nearly 16,000 firms started up in the East London tech hub in the past year, with more businesses registered in the EC1V postcode than anywhere else in the UK.
And following similar moves by tech giants in the US, it is welcome that EE has invested £3.6m in improving existing network coverage in Tech City and kitting out the area with a double-speed 4G network. But while the concept of London Technology Week is great, London needs to focus on technology for all 365 days of the year.
There are whole swathes of the city where you have to lean out of the nearest window just to pick up phone signal. We come twenty-sixth in the UK table of super-fast broadband connectivity, behind Derby, Wolverhampton and Dundee. It takes an average of two weeks just to set up a new broadband connection in inner London. Similarly, 3G signal is stronger in Portsmouth, Southampton and Kingston-upon-Hull than it is in our capital – the self-proclaimed “digital capital of Europe”.
More than half of small business owners express concern at the speed of their internet connections, while nearly two in three feel that poor digital connectivity hurts them financially. This week should be the start of a more radical approach to securing the future of London as the leader in digital. As Google sets its sights on King’s Cross for a new headquarters, and Shazam consolidates its base in Hammersmith, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We should be replicating the success of Silicon Roundabout by encouraging tech hubs to emerge across the capital. Tech City should not be a few streets around Shoreditch – it should be the phrase we use to describe London as a whole.
Tech City is fast reaching capacity and becoming unable to manage demand from new startups, with rocketing rents forcing many to look elsewhere. The lack of widespread digital infrastructure means the average work station in London costs over £14,500 a year, far more than rising stars in the European tech market such as Berlin, where the equivalent cost is £8,000.
London’s political class is eager to shout about roads, bridges, and airports, but it also needs to ensure we invest in the infrastructure of the future: superfast broadband, comprehensive 4G signal and ubiquitous phone reception. Last year, Google launched a free public WiFi network in the Chelsea neighbourhood in New York. Uptown, meanwhile, it was announced that the historically deprived neighbourhood of Harlem would become the location for the largest free public WiFi network in the US. Would it be so revolutionary to replicate such programmes in Merton or Hounslow, to assist the equally savvy app designer priced out of Old Street?
If we are to maintain our competitive edge against the likes of Silicon Valley, New York, and Tokyo, the booming city economies of Singapore, Seoul and Taiwan, and re-emerging European rivals like Berlin, we need a vision that extends beyond a roundabout in Old Street. We need to invest in the digital potential of all corners of the capital to ensure London rightfully secures its title as digital capital of the world.
David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham.