Infrastructure boost means little without a boost to our ability to use it

November 2016

Lyndsey BurtonAt a time when Brexit has caused the pound to plunge to a 31-year low, it’s reassuring that Chancellor Philip Hammond left a place in his Autumn Statement for a £1 billion investment ‘in full-fibre broadband and trialling 5G networks’.

Given that the UK ranks only 30th in the world for average download speed and only 18th in Europe, such an investment will go quite some way to future-proofing the UK’s broadband networks and its digital economy. It will help replace Openreach’s copper-based network with more reliable and speedier alternatives, and ultimately it will enhance the country’s ability to compete with the rest of the globe and also the EU it’s now leaving behind.

However, as welcome as the Government’s commitment to an improved digital infrastructure undoubtedly is, it won’t mean all that much if it isn’t coupled with concerted efforts to improve the UK population’s ability to actually harness the potential of new infrastructure. That is, if the UK is to be a genuine competitor in the post-Brexit global economy, it can’t simply rest its laurels on high-speed networks, but also has to invest in improving education in computer science, in improving digital accessibility, and in strengthening IT in the workplace.

Digital exclusion

This may be an obvious statement to make for some in the industry, yet the conspicuous lack in the Autumn Statement of any new funding for digital education or accessibility suggests that the Government isn’t fully aware that infrastructure is only one half of the battle. This is why it would be useful to highlight some of the areas in which things need to improve before a state-of-the-art digital infrastructure can make complete sense.

For one, there’s a considerable digital divide in the UK, with the Office for National Statistics estimating in 2015 that 11% of the British adult population - or some 5.9 million people - have never used the internet. While this is a 1.2 million improvement over 2013’s figures, it indicates that the UK has some work left to do before it can claim that any new infrastructure will be put to the maximum possible use.

Indeed, it indicates that the UK digital economy is missing out on a large potential market, one which it should undoubtedly make efforts to open if it wants to be more productive and successful in the wake of Brexit.

Given that 61% of over-75s have never used the internet, one way of opening this market was recently suggested by the Local Government Association (the LGA). In October, they urged the Government to use the Autumn Statement to introduce a ‘social tariff’, which would ensure that a basic 10Mb service would be available at a subsidised price to ‘those most in need’.

As the LGA noted, it’s through such a tariff that the UK could go some way towards combating the ‘marked relationships between socio-economic deprivation and [poor] broadband availability in cities’.

The computer science gender gap

Unfortunately, no such provision was included in the Autumn Statement, suggesting that even with a considerably faster national broadband network, there’ll still be many people in the UK who’ll be unable to make the most of it.

Yet aside from accessibility and affordability, there’s another related area in which the Government needs to do more in order to complement their investment in infrastructure. This is education, which isn’t necessary only in the sense that ‘[n]early one in four adults (around 12 million people) do not have basic online skills’. It’s also necessary insofar as there still aren’t enough undergraduates studying computer science at university.

Admittedly, this figure has been increasing over recent years, with UCAS putting the tally of UK students for 2016 at 94,420 [PDF], which is an impressive 40.6% improvement over 2012’s 67,180. Nonetheless, this still pales in comparison to, say, the 223,730 students pursuing business & admin studies, or the 215,180 taking a creative arts & design degree of some kind.

Worse still, there’s a very marked gender divide [PDF] in computer science, with 12,090 British women taking computer science at university compared to 82,330 British men. This is perhaps the biggest problem facing education in computer science today, since in having a pronounced gender bias, the field is effectively depriving itself of a large pool of potential talent.

This is why, if the Government is to make the digital economy a genuine cornerstone of a post-Brexit UK, it has to invest in schemes that will encourage more females and more young people in general to study computer science. Without such investment, the UK will lack the workforce who can use its digital infrastructure to innovate and to compete on the world stage.

The workplace

And this brings us finally to the workplace, which must witness not only an increase in IT training but also a parallel investment in digital resources. Since London was recently deemed the best city in Europe to begin a startup, it’s clear that the UK has already made great strides in this direction, yet it’s clear that we could still do more if we want to become more digitally competitive.

For example, Oxford Economics conducted a study in 2015 on behalf of Virgin Media Business, finding that the British economy could receive a £92 billion boost if companies did more to ‘fully develop their digital potential.’ On the one hand, this would involve ‘improved training to develop digital skills’ and ‘[r]ecruiting the best digital staff’, so that, once again, there are enough people in the UK economy who can use digital infrastructure to its full potential.

On the other, it would also require companies to invest in their own digital infrastructure, so that they have access to, for instance, ‘reliable, integrated, enterprise software’ and big data-driven ‘predictive analytics’. Without such modern resources and capabilities, the Government’s investment in network speeds can take the UK economy only so far, so it’s absolutely vital that UK companies keep up with the pace of change.

Open and ready for business

Otherwise, no amount of megabytes per second are going to help the UK in adapting to Brexit and extending its position as one of the most competitive nations in the global digital economy. These megabytes may look good on paper and may make the Government look good for investing in them, but if there isn’t a corresponding investment in the skills to exploit them, then the net result is almost the same as if they hadn’t been financed in the first place. That’s why, instead of simply showing that the UK is ‘open for business’, the Government also has to work hard to make sure that we’re all ‘ready for business’.

By Lyndsey Burton, founder of Choose, an online price comparison and consumer information website, which covers personal finance, home media and technology.

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