Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire/PA Images

Build new digital networks—then get people using them

The prime minister has pledged full gigabit coverage by 2025. That is only achievable with fresh thinking and sustained investment
August 31, 2020

There are few things that can’t be done digitally in 2020. Our increasing reliance on digital technology is borne out by data: during lockdown, people spent record amounts of time online, and Ofcom found that the number of adults making video calls doubled. Digital platforms have transformed the way we’re able to live and work, now providing a one-stop shop even for remotely accessing physical and cultural activities.

Such rapid advancements must be underpinned by world-class connectivity, and infrastructure that reaches all corners of the UK and ensures no one is left behind. Despite some progress, the UK still lags behind other countries in access to full-fibre broadband, capable of delivering gigabit speeds.

The decision to exclude Huawei from the 5G network, though undoubtedly the correct one for our national security, will cause further delays and add additional costs to a rollout that’s already overdue. Given where we are now, the prime minister’s pledge for full gigabit broadband coverage by 2025 is ambitious—but it provides a welcome focus for policymakers, industry and regulators.

The challenge of meeting the target calls for fresh thinking and sustained investment. It’s not just a matter of tackling barriers to the rollout of full-fibre and 5G, there’s also a question of demand. At present, just over half of those with access to “superfast” broadband speeds have adopted them. What will that mean for uptake of even faster, gigabit-capable services?

Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is conducting an inquiry into how government and industry can deliver the digital infrastructure that will serve businesses’ and individuals’ future needs. We will report our findings in the coming months. What’s clear from our experience during lockdown is that digital innovation will have a huge role to play in the economic recovery. But we can’t forget that millions of Britons were excluded from the rapid shift online. My committee heard troubling evidence of vulnerable people shielding in their homes, cut off from the outside world with no access to basic necessities.

[su_pullquote]“The decision to exclude Huawei is correct, but will cause further 5G delays”[/su_pullquote]

One in five adults in the UK lack the digital skills the government considers essential for operating online. What that means in practice is less contact with friends and family, poorer access to healthcare and financial services and, in many cases, no ability to order food. This not only causes distress and hardship, but also undermines efforts to combat the virus.

Initiatives such as DevicesDotNow, which aims to “connect the unconnected” by donating devices to people who need them, receive warm words from ministers, but these are yet to be backed up by meaningful resources. It should not just be a DCMS responsibility. Essential services like Universal Credit and healthcare are increasingly delivered online. Tackling digital exclusion and developing digital skills deserves concentrated effort across government—and backing from the Treasury.

The pandemic has also laid bare the urgent need for robust regulation of online spaces. Up to half of UK adults reported seeing false or misleading information about Covid-19 online during the crisis. This not only created grave health risks, but increased susceptibility to online scams as our use of online marketplaces grew. The government is due to publish draft online harms legislation in the coming months, and must take experiences of disinformation and misinformation into account.

Increasingly, the lines between life online and offline have blurred. Digital innovation provides a plethora of opportunities going forward. We need to ensure industry, policymakers and regulators are focused on creating a digital environment that is inclusive, safe, open and capable of meeting future challenges.