Whenever people talk about improving the economy and raising the productivity of different regions of the UK, better connectivity is one of the first topics that comes up. Usually, this means talking about investing in physical infrastructure, such as new roads, rail links or finding ways to encourage greater use of public transport.
These are important but the last couple of years have shown just how critical digital connectivity is for the UK’s businesses, public services and communities. Lockdowns saw millions stay at home and log on. Our home broadband and mobile connectivity allowed many of us to keep working. It kept families connected. We streamed entertainment and relied on social media more than ever. And businesses in all sectors used technology to help them adapt when they needed it most.
Now, as we look to the long-term, the challenge for networks, businesses and government alike is to continue this digital transformation – so the UK can reap the economic benefits.
Enabling economic growth through connectivity
As a connectivity champion, we know that tech is a great enabler for businesses and local communities. We see it ourselves every day through our work with public sector partners, through the impact of our network rollout, and through the community initiatives we are part of to tackle digital inclusion at a regional level across the UK.
We know that companies that embrace digital tech grow faster than those that don’t. Our research shows investment in digital transformation will boost the UK economy by £232 billion by 2040. Remote working alone could bring almost four million people currently locked out of the workforce back to work.
Ultimately, upgrading mobile and broadband networks and embracing digital tools supports economic growth and helps the country to level up.
And it will continue to do so. Using economic modelling and advanced analytics, at Virgin Media O2 we have produced a new calculation of the positive impact digital connectivity has on the UK’s economy and society. It shows that if the UK were to overtake other countries, and become the leader on the index, by 2026 it would unlock £69.78 billion in extra GDP. This would create an additional 510,000 new jobs and contribute towards higher economic growth.
For local communities, it could see £16 billion GBP growth in the London region alone. And this growth is not just limited to London and the South East – the data shows that all regions throughout the country could benefit. The North West of England, for example, which is one of the more deprived regions of the UK, could see GDP growth as large as £6.81 billion.
Public and private partnerships
The impact of regional connectivity upgrades has been evident recently in Greater Manchester – where we have been part of a project led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) to connect more than 1,500 public sites to full fibre. It’s part of the UK’s largest Local Full Fibre Networks Programme (LFFN).
This multi-million-pound investment in the Greater Manchester region is helping assist those at risk of digital exclusion, create local jobs and tackling homelessness. It has delivered economic benefits worth £11.8m in the first year alone.
The project also shows the importance of partnerships. To roll out the connectivity we need in all four corners of the UK – and support the levelling up agenda – the public and private sectors need to work together, sharing knowledge and experience.
Community engagement and building from the ground up
The shift into new ways of working and living in recent years has increased the significance of digital connectivity to both businesses and the public. A recent Ofcom study found that more than four in five people believe the impact of Covid-19 has made digital connectivity more important to the UK than before.
Without access to connectivity, people are locked out of job opportunities, essential services, and remote learning. So as well as boosting regional economies, levelling up is also about closing the digital divide – giving access to the connectivity people need, when they need it.
Connectivity providers have a major responsibility here, and we believe that partnerships will be just as critical to tackle digital exclusion as they will to level up. Working with community groups, private sector organisations can understand the connectivity issues facing local people, how these differ from region to region, and how they best respond to help address them.
For example, digital exclusion charity Good Things Foundation has worked with Virgin Media O2 to establish the first ever National Databank. The National Databank provides free mobile SIM cards and data to those who need it – run through Good Things Foundation’s network of 5,000 community organisations. Those accessing free data will also be offered additional support, including digital skills training and signposting to other essential services.
It's a collaboration that’s now bringing in other industry partners, with a platform that is set to help 500,000 people who are cut off from the internet with a route out of data poverty. Understanding the power of relationships like these is essential to maximise positive change in the communities that need it most.
Levelling up, together
In the wake of the pandemic, digital connectivity will continue to be crucial to regional communities, businesses, and economies in the coming months and years. The way we live, and work is changing, fast. And access to digital connections – and the skills needed to make the most of these – will help increase opportunities for all.
At such a critical time for growth, it’s vital that businesses work in partnership with telecoms providers, local authorities, community groups and other stakeholders to build the digital landscape the UK needs.
 Source: Study by Virgin Media O2 Business and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), published September 2021