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Talking up the UK digital economy at Salesforce World Tour

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright May 19, 2016
Digital industries minister Ed Vaizey joined the keynote at Salesforce World Tour in London a day after the UK government announced a Digital Economy Bill

Ed Vaizey MP at Salesforce World Tour London
Ed Vaizey MP at Salesforce World Tour London

The timing may have been fortuitous, but a day after the Queen announced the British government's plans to bring a new Digital Economy Bill through parliament, the Minister responsible came to Salesforce World Tour in London today.

Ed Vaizey relished the opportunity to promote the government's work to the audience at Salesforce's largest annual event outside of Dreamforce, with 15,000 registered attendees. Prompted by Salesforce's UK and Ireland MD Andrew Lawson, he reeled off a list of government actions in support of digital business from the keynote stage:

We've done a lot to make the UK the best place in Europe to roll out a digital business. We attract the largest amount of inward investment in tech in Europe.

We use companies like Salesforce in our Digital Marketplace, we have a fantastic Government Digital Service. We're also investing in skills and we're constantly looking to upgrade skills so that businesses have people with the right skills to grow.

We have a lot of technology startups and also the largest number of unicorns in Europe based in the UK. We have Tech City UK, which is one of the champions of the UK tech scene. We're great champions of distributed ledger technology [blockchain]. We look at regulations that help startups to grow in the digital economy.

Vaizey has responsibility for digital industries in his role as Minister of State in two government departments — Culture, Media and Sport and Business, Innovation and Skills. As such, he has a big stake in the Digital Economy Bill announced yesterday as part of the legislative agenda for the coming year.

Universal right to broadband

Reading a script prepared by ministers, the monarch yesterday declared that the purpose of the Bill is to "make the United Kingdom a world leader in the digital economy." It includes commitments to

  • Build world-class digital infrastructure including fast broadband and mobile networks.
  • Support new digital industries.
  • Reform the way government uses data to deliver public services.
  • Strengthen protections for citizens in the digital world.

In a meeting with media before the keynote began, Vaizey faced questions about one of the headline measures in the new Bill — the introduction of a legal right for citizens to have a fast broadband connection installed, with a proposed minimum speed of 10Mbps. One reporter described the commitment as being seen as "a bit of a damp squib." Vaizey responded:

The 10Mbps target is for our Universal Service Obligation [USO], which is the right to request a connection to broadband — we're talking here about the very hardest to reach areas, the last 5% of the UK. As you know, 90% of the UK now has access to 24Mbits. In fact 50% of the UK has access to ultrafast broadband as well, so we're doing very well.

The 10Mbits is twice as high as the European recommendation as part of the Universal Service Directive, a lot higher than most other countries, many of whom don't have a universal service obligation, so I don't see it is a damb squib. But we have said we'll keep it under review. We want it to track superfast speeds across the UK — we don't want to leave people on 10Mbits in a few years' times when say 100Mbits might be the norm in terms of what people can access in the rest of the country, so we'll keep it under review.

But we do think it's ambitious, and these were the very hardest to reach areas.

He also highlighted proposals to relax planning rules that will make it easier for network providers to get consent to put up new masts. He suggested such moves are sure to become a talking point down the local pub, but in all honesty that's unlikely to be because people are raving about the height of new masts in their neighbourhood. Vaizey said:

If you don't get excited by the 10Mbits USO you should get excited by our key planning reforms in the Digital Economy Bill and I know a lot of people down the Dog and Duck will be talking about wayleaves and taller masts, because that's also very exciting to help build our digital infrastructure.

Fostering digital giants

When asked by diginomica what more can be done to foster the growth of UK and European digital giants on the same scale as those from the US, Vaizey began by emphasizing the value the US providers bring.

I think it's important when we talk about the large American companies to put some context to the debate. We see from Salesforce itself the contribution both in terms of direct jobs for people employed by Salesforce, but also indirect jobs — with 15,000 business customers in the UK and the jobs that they're creating through helping those businesses are significant. The value that a company like Salesforce will add to the economy just as the UK dominates the app economy in Europe and just as small businesses are now able to sell on platforms like Amazon and Etsy are all really important contributions to our economy.

It's also important to grow UK and European companies, he said, adding an endorsement for EU's digital single market — Vaizey is firmly on the 'Remain' side of the current UK debate on membership of the EU.

The digital single market will make a difference, if we can have a genuine single market of 500 million citizens, that's a huge platform on which to grow a digital business.

But while government can create the conditions, his conclusion suggested that the availability of investment capital remains a major obstacle to further progress.

When we talk about creating Silicon Valley in the UK or indeed in Europe I think we've created it, in the sense that we've created the infrastructure and the skills and the enterprise.

Where I think it's hard for government to create is that organic issue of the access to capital and expertise. I think what we find a lot in Silicon Valley is people who have made significant sums of money from tech investments and are therefore also highly experienced, being able to invest their capital in startups and mentor them. That is happening I think more and more in the UK and in Europe, but to a certain extent that will be organic. I think the situation most people you talk to will tell you, the access to capital situation in Europe is far different from what it was five years ago, but I think it does still lag behind the US.

Data privacy

Questioned on developments on Safe Harbor and the recent legislation on Investigatory Powers, he positioned the government as business friendly without making any new commitments.

I think Safe Harbor is obviously a massively important issue. It's important from a UK government perspective that we keep the free flow of data. It's very important for business. We don't want to put in place artificial barriers, so we'll be, from the UK government's perspective, pushing the agenda for the free flow of data for companies.

In terms of the Investigatory Powers Act, clearly we've had this debate now in terms of encryption and security for quite a while now and I do often say to the tech community, it's not a binary debate, it's not either you're pro security or your pro encryption. It's perfectly possible to have a debate where as tech people we push a particular agenda and we support encryption in the UK but as citizens we also understand the need for the security services to have the tools to keep us safe as citizens.

I want to have a conversation with the tech community going forward on the best way to achieve that, just as we've done in the past on issues like protecting children online and other issues that are thrown up by the increasing digitization of our economy.

Vaizey also commended the role of UK consumers and businesses as technology adopters in driving the digital economy:

UK consumers and businesses really are great adopters of technology. Consumers - the customers of businesses — drive a lot of innovation. For example, companies like Salesforce have a big focus on its customers and how those customers drive their businesses. It’s the customers who drive Salesforce and this is feeding back through to UK growth.

My take

I didn't get an opportunity to find out if the minister would be surprised to learn that downtown Brighton is one of those remote locations that still struggles to rise to 10Mbps, based on the experiences of my colleague Stuart Lauchlan. The effectiveness of the commitment to universal broadband access will have to be judged on its delivery.

Overall it's good to see the level of commitment from the British government to foster a thriving digital economy, but as with so many promises of this ilk, the proof is in the pudding.

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