A post-Brexit Britain's connected future needs a 'digital enforcer' at Cabinet level

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan December 13, 2016
Summary:
The UK's digital infrastructure policy needs re-thinking and a steady hand of strong ministerial leadership at Cabinet level, says the National Infrastructure Commission in an excellent new report.

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Digital leadership starts here

Here’s a chilling stat when contemplating post-Brexit Digital Britain - the UK ranks 54th in the global league table when it comes to 4G coverage. And despite protestations by firms like BT and assorted government ministers, that’s a situation that’s seriously damaging to any claims of digital leadership for the UK.

The grim reality is spelled out in a report - Connected Future -  from the government’s own National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which was asked earlier this year to deliver its findings on what the UK would need to do to become a world leader in 5G deployment. 

The answer to that is akin to the old joke  ‘How do I get from A to B?’, to which the response is, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here!’.  Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission Lord Adonis admits:

The UK is currently languishing in the digital slow lane. Britain is 54th in the world for 4G coverage, and the typical user can only access 4G barely half the time. Our 4G network is worse than Romania and Albania, Panama and Peru. Our roads and railways can feel like digital deserts and even our city centres are plagued by not spots where connectivity is impossible.

That isn’t just frustrating, it is increasingly holding British business back as more and more of our economy requires a connected workforce…The existing system does not provide the level of coverage we will need in our connected future.

The solution to this digital shortfall is to view 5G as a fresh start, says the NIC, but that means the government and service providers taking urgent action. Lord Adonis says:

If government acts now we can ensure our major transport networks and urban centres are 5G ready in time to give British industry every chance to lead the world in exploiting its applications…From connected vehicles to the internet of things, 5G will support a whole new way of communicating and doing business. The UK must not be left behind.

There’s no room for error on this, warns the NIC:

Other countries already have the advantage in terms of manufacturing the hardware needed for 5G, and the UK will not make up that ground. But the development of new services to make use of the improved connectivity offered by 5G is an area which will build on many of the existing strengths of the UK economy and provide opportunities for British firms both at home and abroad.

The UK has the potential to be amongst the leaders in growth industries developing around internet and cloud-based applications and services, and around the Internet of Things, that depend on the widespread deployment of advanced mobile connectivity like 5G. But this potential will only be fully realised if the relatively slow roll-out and availability of 4G networks is not repeated.

Strong leadership needed

The most radical digital recommendation that the NIC comes up with is to call for “a strong digital champion backed by a dedicated cabinet committee” at the top of government. Currently there is a Digital Minister in the shape of Matt Hancock at the Department of Culture, Media and Sports, but since the departure of Francis Maude as Minister for the Cabinet Officer, the role of ‘digital enforcer’ has been low key to non-existent.

The NIC notes that despite the importance of the UK’s digital infrastructure, there is no single government department that has responsibility for it:

Instead, the government’s interests in digital infrastructure are fragmented and entwined with the wider policy interests of numerous departments and agencies. For example, the Home Office’s procurement and delivery of the Emergency Services Network is a major telecoms project and many of the projects for which the Department for Transport has responsibility, such as roads and railways investment and upgrades have a significant digital component.

That needs to change, says the NIC, which says ultimate government responsibility for digital infrastructure should reside in one place under a single Cabinet minister who has the authority to shape policy and delivery across government, ensuring that it delivers the government’s overarching digital strategy.

This minister would report to the Economy and Industrial Strategy Cabinet Committee, set up and chaired by Prime Minister Theresa May and populated by secretaries of state from ten government departments. The minister’s remit would include responsibility to:

  • Identify the public projects that contain a significant element of digital infrastructure and establish and maintain a plan which sets out how they can help deliver the government’s overarching digital strategy and maximise the benefit of better mobile telecommunications for UK citizens and businesses.
  • Hold the various parts of government that are delivering digital infrastructure to account, in order to ensure adequate telecoms network provision in the delivery of its infrastructure programmes.
  • Ensure that when upgrading existing or delivering new infrastructure, such as that alongside our roads and railways, the long term capacity needs of telecoms networks are considered and met. This could include installing more fibre and additional infrastructure to make sure that networks are future-proof. It will also mean ensuring that the networks are readily accessible to communications providers.
  • Be a centre of telecoms expertise within government that supports departments in determining their needs and procuring telecoms infrastructure, and support departments in demonstrating and testing of new, digitally-enabled ways of delivering public services such as education and healthcare.
  • Support and challenge local government in their plans to enable the delivery of digital infrastructure; both in terms of ensuring that these plans help the UK to meet its national objectives, and that local authorities develop consistent approaches to support the deployment of mobile infrastructure across the country.

The NIC also wants to see telecoms regulator Ofcom step up to the mark with new metrics that establish the true picture of mobile network coverage in the UK and use that as a basis for minimum service levels:

Mobile services are increasingly viewed as essential, underpinning our daily lives and the digital economy. Government must deliver a view by the end of 2017 on what aspects of mobile services are considered “essential”. It should then establish how this “essential” level of service provision can be made available through a mobile universal service obligation regardless of the network to which a customer is subscribed.

My take

If I could have five minutes with Theresa May, I’d use them to encourage her to support and implement the recommendations of this report. The current moves towards federating digital strategy back out to departmental level is supported by the Head of the Civil Service John Manzoni. But the UK digital industrial strategy needs ownership - and strong ownership of the Francis Maude variety at that!

Enough of the self-deluding ‘we’re digital leaders’ blandishments from ministers and from the commercially-motivated self-interest of the likes of BT CEO Gavin Patterson. This is too serious an issue for the long-term future of post-Brexit Britain. OK, we’re ahead of France and Germany in the 4G league table, but we’re behind 53 other countries, including current European Union partners, on the global stage.

It’s interesting to note that the Labour Party looks as though it too would endorse much of what the NIC recommends. Chi Onwurah, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation, says:

Improving our digital connectivity will be a huge boon for business, and enable the UK to play a leading role in the coming 4th Technological Revolution. After a series of connectivity setbacks, the Government is now unable to offer anything but tinkering at the edges and have missed their own connectivity targets. Labour support calls for a new, ambitious digital Universal Service Obligation, and for the Government to take responsibility for developing the digital infrastructure that will equip our economy for the future.

There’s a chance here for some cross-party consensus. The Prime Minister has made the creation of a national industrial strategy a priority for her administration. Let’s get the digital component of that front and centre. This is a good report and makes excellent recommendations, although they will not sit well with some in positions of influence. But to ignore them would be madness. 

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Image credit - Freeimages.com

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