In a speech to MPs and senior business leaders in Parliament, Matthew Fell, CBI UK Policy Chief set about convincing those in the room why concrete action on digital connectivity needs to be taken in 2019.
The event was hosted by Mark Garnier, MP for Wyre Forest.
Thank you very much Mark.
It’s great to join you in Parliament this afternoon.
As I walked in, I couldn’t help but notice the ongoing renovations happening around us.
And I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing that people can’t see Big Ben at the moment.
But to me, it feels very apt – that these works are going on in 2019.
And not just because I’m proud of our brilliant construction sector.
But because businesses are hopeful that this year…
…will be one of political rebuilding in a broader sense.
For once, I’m actually not talking about Brexit.
But about the unique opportunity policy makers have in 2019…
…to do something that will continue to benefit the economy for generations.
Something that could be worth billions of pounds of growth.
Something that could transform our long commutes…
…enable companies to harness cutting-edge AI …
…and close the productivity gap between London and the rest of the UK.
It’s to upgrade our digital connectivity.
To invest in the masts and cables that bring us 5G…
…and world-class internet speeds.
This might sound obvious.
It might even sound – in these times of divisive politics – like something we all agree on already.
But with Brexit sucking the oxygen out of other priorities, there is a real risk…
…that 2019 will be a year in which we overlook the rest of our economy.
And that the digital revolution – worth billions of pounds – is left to buffer.
Fortunately, it’s not too late.
The government has set out a vision.
But now is the time for action.
And last month, the CBI released a new report.
‘Ready, Set, Connect’.
About exactly how policy makers can begin to act this year.
So today, I’m going to talk about just three big things we need to get right in 2019.
- First – the right investment.
- Second – the right access.
- And third – the right adoption.
Investment for remote areas
So first – getting the right investment.
And let me start by mentioning a number:
It’s the size of the prize – for 5G alone…
…which we could add to the UK economy over the next ten years.
Because often, when it comes to politics, the first question people ask is:
‘Where’s the money coming from?’
And actually, businesses have already invested heavily in digital infrastructure.
That’s not going to stop.
In fact, the private sector will provide most of the £33 billion total investment needed…
…to deliver full fibre networks across the UK.
But it’s not just about the amount of money.
But where it’s invested.
And the places firms just can’t go alone.
Orkney, for example.
It’s just one of many remote areas in the UK…
…that could benefit from world-class levels of connectivity.
Where 5G could allow vets to examine farm animals remotely.
Or even Dorset.
Where Wessex Water hope to use remote sensors in rivers…
…to assess water quality from afar.
But here’s the catch.
There’s already a digital divide in these rural areas.
But people’s ability to enjoy world-class digital connectivity…
…shouldn’t be determined by where they happen to live or work.
There’s not just a strong social case for this nationwide coverage.
But a clear economic one, too.
Which sees connectivity – not as one isolated part of the economy…
…but as an enabler for firms across all sectors and industries.
In other words, if data is the new oil…
…digital infrastructure is the pipeline that supplies it.
So further funding is needed in 2019.
And the key to unlocking this investment…
…is the government’s spending review – later this year.
To deliver the investment that reaches these remote, rural areas.
The digital opportunity is ready and waiting.
But without action in 2019, we risk further embedding existing gaps in productivity –
…and barely scratching the surface of the digital opportunity.
Regulation and access
Which brings me to the second thing we need to get right – access.
Starting with access to roads and railways.
Because one of the key ways to ignite productivity…
…is to make 5G available for people, not just at work…
…but for commuters on their way to work.
Through access to public infrastructure projects.
Take the Trans Pennine railway, for example.
It carries millions of commuters a year, to some of the UK’s biggest cities.
From Morley to Manchester, or Stockport to Sheffield.
It’s just one of the rail routes…
…where the government has recently trialled new 5G connections.
Because in a world of drones, phones, and streaming game of thrones…
…over 70% of commuters now use their smartphone on their journey.
So why should commuting be a chore?
Why not take the first steps into a world…
…where commuter connectivity could enable everything:
From architecture – by creating 3D building models in real-time…
…to farming – and the remote monitoring of machinery.
Or if you need to work from home…
Why not there too?
Why not equip every new build in the UK with full fibre technology…
…to enable more flexible working?
In this case, it’s not just investing that matters.
But about the difficulties companies face getting access to properties…
…when looking to install digital connections in private rentals.
It’s why businesses want to see fast-tracked planning legislation going through parliament this year…
…if we are to give constituents, consumers, and commuters the world-class connectivity they need.
And enable high-value work in rural villages…
…as well as high-speed connectivity on high-speed trains.
Now the final thing we need to get right…
…is business adoption of digital infrastructure.
And timing really is the key here.
Because there’s no doubt that the UK is developing fantastic technology.
But right now, on the global stage, the race is on to ensure firms adopt it.
The government has already committed to nationwide 5G coverage by 2027.
And full fibre will be close behind, in 2033.
But this year – 2019 – must be a year of rapid uptake.
To ensure that all businesses, no matter what size, sector or location…
…know how to adopt the best digital connectivity.
This can be done in two ways.
First – by extending support for businesses…
…to help small firms adopt existing technologies like 4G and full fibre.
And second, by expanding trials in new technology – like 5G…
…so businesses can explore the art of the possible with seamless connectivity.
Because in today’s world, digital connectivity is not just a nice to have…
…it’s a business basic.
Again, the main thing in the way…
The thing that prevents us claiming this prize…
And the thing that stops us achieving this vision…
If we don’t act in 2019, all these opportunities will become a pipe dream.
And if Brexit steals the spotlight…
…we’ll have barely chipped away at the digital opportunity.
But let me conclude with some optimism.
Because in these times of increasing division and polarisation…
...it’s refreshing to find something we all agree on.
And no matter what happens next…
…we all want to find ways to invest in our economy for future generations.
So now let’s deliver digital connectivity at a digital pace.
Business has put forward some practical steps to take.
- Investment in rural areas
- Access to roads, railways, and rental properties
- And supercharging business adoption
So now this year – 2019 – let’s move from warm words…
…to concrete action.
And start making our digital connectivity not just a priority…
…but a badge of honour on the world stage.
One that government can be proud of.
One that businesses can be proud of.
And one that British people can be proud of.