Bridging the digital infrastructure divide

Martin Courtney, Principal Analyst, Tech Market View

Martin has been undertaking detailed research of the ICT market for the past 10 years, specialising latterly in data centre and cloud services, connectivity (enterprise and telco) and the related security issues. Martin monitors market trends to identify and explain disruptive technologies and their effect on both the market and the players.

Ironing out disparities in digital infrastructure across the UK is essential to reducing inequality and fostering long term growth

The government’s “levelling up” agenda includes more than just improvements to the UK’s transport network, mayoral devolution and public sector relocation. Another of its central aims is to reduce the disparity between the availability and efficiency of digital infrastructure in different regions of the country with the aim of reducing regional inequality too.

Some projects will inevitably be put on hold in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, yet in many ways the recent surge in remote working and studying represents a perfect opportunity to accelerate a fundamental and permanent change. Data network upgrades and expansion, essential to promoting greater digital inclusion, should not be postponed, not least because they will help spread economic activity more evenly across the entire country rather than concentrating it in specific regions or major cities.

Robust digital infrastructure required for work and education

Plans to improve fixed and wireless network connectivity in Britain’s major urban centres are already underway with full fibre broadband promised to every home in the UK by 2025. The government will also spend up to £5bn on fourth (4G) and fifth generation (5G) cellular and other gigabit-capable network infrastructure to segments of the population living in rural and hard to reach areas which have historically been poorly served by high speed telecommunications networks.

The construction of that fast, robust broadband infrastructure is critical to providing smooth, latency free access to web-based educational and e-commerce resources that will promote more equal participation in the country’s economy for all of its citizens. Social inequality levels have been exacerbated by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who rarely advance to tertiary education, partly because students from less affluent families often struggle to afford high speed broadband subscriptions or access the client hardware needed to connect.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that more must be done to make sure that schools and pupils have the routers, desktop computers and laptops to enable unrestricted participation. Equally, educational resources and content must be redesigned to fit the new normal, with the Department of Education working more closely with teachers to create online lessons and resources for virtual schools.

Connected towns and cities

Lockdown restrictions and social distancing rules have already reduced many UK workers’ appetite for unnecessary travel – both to central urban offices and meetings with customers, colleagues and business partners. Once those measures are fully abated that inclination should persist, with greater reliance on web, cloud and online resources for collaboration making it possible for both public and private sector organisations to maintain the bulk of operations outside of major cities and hubs for the first time. Those organisations could end up operating a larger number of smaller premises closer to where their employees actually work and located throughout the country, meaning the character of the UK’s towns and cities in terms of footfall and activity could change dramatically.

That presents councils and planners with an opportunity to overhaul local urban infrastructure which will accommodate the commercial and educational needs of larger numbers of people. That includes making towns more accessible to those with disabilities, both in terms of physical infrastructure and using information resources and apps to create greater awareness of disabled people’s needs ahead of their visit. Innovative technologies based around the Internet of Things (IoT) can boost retail and tourism through smarter rail and bus, traffic and parking management schemes, tied with personalised shopping experiences with a sharper focus on click and collect, online ordering and virtual or augmented reality (AR/VR) browsing and fittings.

Tax incentives and healthcare, transport improvements

Ironing out the economic disparity between different regions of the UK is essential to our future growth. The government should now consider tax incentives which will help companies spread their base of operations across the country more equally, particularly when it comes to shifting offices and people beyond London and the South East. These could include favourable applications of corporation tax and business rates for example, with the treasury already having shown its willingness to be flexible on VAT for industries like catering and hospitality.

The benefits of levelling up can extend far beyond the economy and education to deliver long term social change. Improvements to digital infrastructure can better support remote healthcare provision that takes pressure off the NHS and overcrowded road and rail network systems whilst improving the nation’s environmental wellbeing, for example. Removing the need for large numbers of UK workers to commute daily into city centre offices can also help to alleviate strain on housing availability and affordability in major urban centres.

If the government fulfils its promise to drive digital infrastructure improvement and investment across the entire country, a more equal, digitally inclusive future for UK citizens wherever they happen to live and work will look less like a dream and more like a reality.

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