Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s General Election.
The 2019 Conservative Party Conference seems like a long time ago: Manchester thronging with crowds, ministerial drop-ins to fringe events, warm wine on a terrace somewhere, enjoying the last sparkle of summer sunshine.
Amongst the policy and pints there was one that stood out to me. Not unique in the pantheon of the Prime Minister’s ambitious vision was to have, “gigabit broadband sprouting in every home.” However, what is unique is the effect this particular ambition can have on everyone in the country.
So often politics, particularly Westminster politics, can seem distant; billions of pounds spent on a scheme that is nowhere near where you live, and the effects of which will be imperceptible to you. But, there are certain times when Westminster does touch people directly, and quickly.
An obvious example is taxation. For me, genuinely overnight, the stamp duty freeze allowed us to finally think about purchasing our first home. Internet connectivity, though, is perhaps one of the most ambitious and immediate reforms this government could have, and certainly a potential lasting legacy for the Prime Minister himself.
When you look at the high level statistics for the UK on broadband connectivity you could be forgiven for thinking we are not doing too badly. According to the ONS 96 per cent of households have internet access, and within Europe, the UK is ranked 8th for internet access according to a study by the EU Commission last year (pre-Brexit). Notably this was a steady decline from 6th and 7th in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Nonetheless, these top-level statistics belie the actual experience of internet usage.
At this stage, and bear with me, it is worth talking, a little, about internet infrastructure. The Commons Library has an excellent report on this but to summarise: superfast broadband is defined as download speeds of 30 megabits per second and is available to 95 per cent of UK properties. This type of broadband has been mainly delivered by Fibre-to-the-Cabinet technology (part-fibre, part-copper). During the coronavirus pandemic this broadband, which was thought to be sufficient for fairly data intensive use, such as streaming videos, was pushed to the limit as our entire lives moved online.
The UK needs to increase its capacity and gigabit broadband (1000Mbps) is the way to do it. As an indication, a one-gigabit-per-second download speed would allow a high-definition film to be downloaded in less than a minute. There are plenty of technologies that can be used to deliver this service including full-fibre connections, high-speed cable broadband, and potentially future 5G networks, as well as emerging satellite internet technology.
However, only 27 per cent of British premises had access to a gigabit-broadband connection in September 2020. (The Library’s dashboard is a fascinating tool to work out where the most affected areas are, should you have a few spare minutes in-between Zoom calls.)
So the problem really is twofold. How do we reach those areas that are still left without adequate internet connection, which is around 100,000 premises, and how do we eventually provide gigabit capable service to the whole country?
The Government’s plan, published on March 19, is welcome. It looks at innovative ways to supply that 0.3 per cent of the country without adequate service. Whilst this may seem like a small number, or a disproportionate level of focus, let us remember that these communities are, by definition, the most isolated and potentially vulnerable in terms of mental health and educational needs, and therefore deserving of focus and attention in improving their connectivity to the rest of the country – at true One Nation idea if I ever have seen one.
The second problem is more ambitious and effectual. With 74 per cent of the country still operating on outdated and inadequate internet infrastructure the return on investment of such upgrades, for the economy and productivity, would be profound. This falls squarely into the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and is a true nationwide issue.
For example, London only has 21 per cent gigabit connectivity (Westminster itself is barely above 55 per cent), the South-East is at 20 per cent, and the North-West sits at 37 per cent. This is a policy area much aligned with the Prime Minister’s pledge to level up the whole country.
The £5 billion scheme announced today, by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, to boost internet connectivity is really welcome news and part of a broader strategy, but I urge the Government not to lose any ambition on this. So rare is the opportunity to transform a part of the nation’s infrastructure that would mean so much to people. It would allow grandparents in Banff to speak to grandchildren in Bristol, help a sole trader in Milton Keynes to sell to customers in Mevagissey and even, dare I say, a Prime Minister in Westminster to speak to colleagues in Workington.
It is not hyperbole to suggest that this project is, and should be, as significant as the creation of the National Grid in the late 1920s. We urge the Government not be swayed by the many competing issues in its inbox, and.throw its energies behind this ambitious and potentially transformative project.