This event was convened by Onward and Vodafone UK to consider how best to build the infrastructure for a leading digital economy and what role 5G infrastructure can play in the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda.
The panel included Matt Warman MP, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, Jo Gideon MP, Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, Alan Mak MP, Member for Havant and Chairman of the APPG for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Nick Jeffery, CEO of Vodafone UK and was chaired by Will Tanner, Director of Onward.
Scroll down for a Summary of the discussion.
Summary of the discussion
There was strong consensus amongst the panellists that rolling out strong connectivity is a non-negotiable if the Government is to successfully level up the country. Among a number of examples, enabling children to participate in online learning and removing barriers from entrepreneurial activity, were discussed as two areas that are fundamental to making sure none of the UK’s potential goes untapped.
Matt Warman laid out in his opening remarks that the pandemic has demonstrated how far we have come, with much of the country successfully working remotely. However, it has also laid bare the substantial cost of poor coverage in ‘not spots’. The UK has made good progress, announcing a £5 billion investment in digital and lifting the number of premises who have access to Gigabit networks from less than 1 in 10 premises last year to a third of premises this year.
It was remarked that whilst some digital businesses have thrived during the pandemic, those less able to adapt have suffered. Nick Jeffrey noted that research by Vodafone calculated the cost of the latter to be as much as a £15 billion loss to the economy, and around 37,000 fewer digital jobs. The key was to think less about specific technologies and more about giving people the opportunity to succeed. As one participant said: “Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart — and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them”
Jo Gideon explained how her constituency in Stoke on Trent has suffered from poor digital infrastructure in the past but that she was optimistic for the role of digital in levelling up. If you have not got the connectivity you need then you can’t do the basics, start a business or teach your child during lockdown, but if you can access high speed internet, places like Stoke have much more opportunity to compete.
Alan Mak MP made clear that the Fourth Industrial revolution is underway and the UK is well placed to be a leading force in this transition. Digital infrastructure is an increasingly important aspect of our lives, with a 30% increase in data traffic in recent years. The shift to digital has the potential to be a powerful boost to UK productivity.
However history tells us that previous industrial revolutions have created winners and losers. It is therefore essential that the necessary infrastructure is put in place to ensure all parts of the UK economy can benefit from greater connectivity rather than enabling the digital divide to grow.
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