Making Britain more competitive requires investment in digital infrastructure – especially 5G
The Government set itself a mighty task in announcing its determination to ‘level up’ the British economy last year. But that challenge has become all the harder in recent months.
Growth in economically disadvantaged areas was already keenly sought but the impact of Covid-19 means it is now an absolute necessity if the Government is not only to fulfil its levelling up ambitions, but also to ensure this country returns to prosperity.
Whitehall insiders suggest that civil servants have been struggling to come up with the policies which might bring allow the country to ‘level up’ but it has always been clear that the Prime Minister sees infrastructure in general, and digital infrastructure in particular, as central to this agenda.
His explicit commitment to gigabit connectivity around the country by 2025 and most of the UK having 5G coverage by 2027 showed that connectivity was a vital plank in the ‘boosterism’ he espoused.
Those commitments, which were made last year, look remarkably prescient given the events of the last six months and our individual and industrial reliance on these networks.
But the Government was right to talk about what we might need in the future rather than our current requirements. At the heart of that was the role that might be played by fifth generation mobile networks – 5G.
Today my co-author, Alex Jackman, and I have published Upwardly Mobile, a report which looks at the potential impact of 5G in driving growth, the impediments it faces as a technology and how we might overcome them.
Read more: BT taps Nokia to replace Huawei 5G networks
The initial speeds and capacity offered are simply an evolution of 4G – great news for gamers and digital downloads but not exactly game-changing. But come the middle of the decade and the technology could unleash unimaginable ways of working and business development.
Delivered punctually, 5G can give a new lease of life to those industries that have suffered the most recently, including those at the heart of the levelling up agenda.
There are more than 9,000 manufacturing firms spanning the 44 constituencies in the North of England and the Midlands that changed hands at the 2019 General Election.
Our research showed that those firms could collectively generate an additional £161mn in annual turnover by 2027. Extrapolated to all manufacturing firms in the economy, that’s an additional £5bn annual turnover.
But the impact goes beyond turnover figures and profit targets. In fact, digital will sit at the heart of most the Government’s plans over this parliament.
Digital transformation is already being used to drive better planning policy. It is hoped 5G-enabled improvements – including in virtual reality and through more active use of drones – will help the construction sector.
And in agriculture, a key plank within the trade deals the UK hopes to sign in the months and years to come, large parts of the sector are becoming increasingly reliant on better connectivity.
To build the networks upon which 5G will rely, £50bn of mostly private money is going to be spent across all corners of the UK over the next five years. In fact, strip out the Government’s £5bn commitment on full fibre on the edges of commercial rollout, and there is very little public subsidy involved. It is therefore in everybody’s interests that the Government does what it can to let this investment flow. Indeed, that is the more important given the recent decision to strip Huawei out of the network.
We found that historic land laws, justifiable in their time, are now hideous anachronisms that are slowing down deployment in rural and city communities. In particular we looked at the role of the Electronic Communications Code and how it works – or rather doesn’t work – at present.
Our central recommendations are based around the idea that the Electronic Communications Code and its enforcement must be updated to become fit for the modern age.
We urge the Government to act and suggest interim, non-legislative interventions to speed up agreements between property owners and infrastructure providers.
We also think that stronger public sector leadership on the deployment of 5G is needed, across national planning frameworks and local development plans, so we argue for a review of planning rules with regard to digital deployment and for local plans to give digital infrastructure more attention.
These are small steps which can unlock big benefits. Digital networks and services have helped our population to remain resilient throughout the first few months of a difficult global disaster. How quickly and efficiently we allow the private sector to invest in improving them will be critical to our recovery.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the human race is capable of rapid adaptation to a changing environment. We must deliver the tools that facilitate that adaptation.