In November’s Budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond outlined his desire to secure Britain’s position as a global leader in technology and innovation, saying that the world is “on the brink of a technological revolution”. This ambition is not just important to the tech sector, but key to the economy’s growth as a whole.
In recent years the UK’s digital sector has been growing at twice the rate of the wider economy – so its importance to our future, not least when uncertainties around Brexit continue to cloud other areas such as manufacturing, cannot be understated. We also know that people in the UK are ready to embrace a vibrant, digital future. Our recent Digital Futures Index found that they’re positive about the impact that technology has had on their lives, and that they’re ready to embrace what’s new.
However, to become the digital leader we aspire to be will take investment in skills, funding for research into emerging areas and support for new businesses – as well as require a significant boost in the infrastructure that provides connectivity to every corner of the country.
When going about your day to day business it can be hard to gauge just how the UK stacks up against the rest of the world when it comes to connectivity. But when you look at the numbers, there are some eyebrow raising statistics.
According to the latest figures, the UK has slower 4G speeds than countries such as Mexico, Lebanon, Romania, Lithuania and Serbia. The reach of 4G also leaves something to be desired. Ofcom’s Connected Nations report from last year found that while 97% of the UK’s population can receive a 4G signal, actual geographic coverage fares much worse - with only 40% of the country by area able to get a signal. This clearly needs to improve if the UK is to be a global technology leader.
Why connectivity matters
Some will argue that it’s ultimately not that important if the remotest areas of the UK are unable to receive a 4G connection. After all, if there’s no one there to use it, why does it matter? Up until recently they might have had a point. But as we pivot towards a future that will be defined by smart technology – from driverless cars, autonomous drones and environmental monitoring devices – it needs to improve, and quickly.
The role of devices we use to connect to the internet is changing rapidly, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is very much a part of this. For example, environmental factors like the scale of air pollution could be automatically monitored by smart, connected sensors that don’t need human input. We’ve already been part of a similar environmental project developing the IoT infrastructure and tool kits required for a flood warning system, and so investment promised by the Chancellor to establish charging infrastructure and R&D for electric cars is a positive move for air quality improvement. It’s clear that technologies like these provide appealing environmental and economic benefits, but only if the right connectivity is available.
In fact, if we are to maximise the opportunities that driverless cars offer to reduce congestion and improve safety on our roads, it’s vital to have the right level of connectivity. Coordination of vehicles in our cities and fleet management will become increasingly important, and that will only be possible when vehicles can communicate with infrastructure and each other, in a trusted manner at speed with robust, reliable, high-bandwidth connectivity. Rural areas will provide rapidly changing environments which vehicles can warn every other vehicle about in advance, whilst simultaneously feeding into continuous learning AI networks. Work is underway to explore these challenges using existing investment that the government has made in projects such as the DRIVEN consortium – of which Nominet is a partner. And recently, the Parliament Under Secretary of State for Transport, Baroness Sugg, announced new measures to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of the fast-evolving global drones market, which of course is very welcome. But, for the potential of drones to be realised, a flexible framework for the safe and secure use of these – much like the frameworks being investigated for driverless vehicles – needs to be in place too. For surely it won’t be long until AI is operating the drones in our skies as well as the cars on our roads. Additional investment in connectivity will be crucial in realising the autonomous dream, be it driverless cars or smart drones.
Without doubt, there’s much more to 5G speeds than faster mobile connections. It’s a major driver behind many of the technologies that promise a more productive, prosperous future. Right now, some of the data needs might be relatively modest – but in time and with the growing sophistication and proliferation of devices, better, faster and cheaper connectivity will help deliver on that promise.
Connecting ‘unreachable’ people and places
Of course, that’s not to say it’s easy to just deliver connectivity everywhere – in many remote or rural environments, existing technology simply isn’t practical. Geographic factors such as mountains or forests can block traditional wireless technologies, while areas with few or no customers provide little immediate commercial incentive for companies to target them.
Therefore, we need to look to other wireless vectors and mechanisms for deploying them. Innovation in emerging technologies can find an answer to connectivity problems that have previously left certain areas of the country isolated. As an example, over the last few years we’ve brought broadband to several areas like these for the first time, using TV white space technology. Leftover wireless spectrum from the digital TV switchover can instead be used to deliver wireless broadband at lower frequencies, meaning that physical obstacles such as buildings and trees don’t interfere. The most recent case is in Loch Ness, where a number of businesses and tourists alike can now get connected for the first time. And for these individuals’ connectivity is not just about having the technology – it’s about having access to opportunities to participate and thrive in a digital economy too. Our hope is that bringing connectivity to communities like Loch Ness will truly revolutionise the ways in which people live and work.
While there will be challenges to overcome to deliver wireless connectivity across the country in the years ahead, we will have to find ways to innovate our way around them.
The road to a vibrant, digital future
The investment pledged by Philip Hammond is very welcome, and we share his ambition to make the UK a world-leader in technology. With the pace of change so fast and the potential so great, it is difficult to predict the scale of data and the levels of connectivity that will be required to support the realisation of our technological aspirations – even within our lifetimes. However, we are ready to embrace a vibrant, digital future. If we can address the connectivity needed to underpin new and emerging technologies, it will have far-reaching and positive impact for business and broader society, and we’ll be well positioned to be the global technology leader we aspire to be.
Russell Haworth will be speaking at the Vibrant Digital Future Summit on 31st January 2018. For more information, visit www.vibrantdigitalfuture.uk
Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet
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