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We need to keep ahead - not just keep up
Two days before the end of 2015 the government announced a three week consultation to inform its five-year Digital Strategy, which we await with interest. The challenge for that Digital Strategy will be to maximise the scale of the societal and economic ‘dividend’ offered by digital technology and to ensure that it benefits all people and parts of the UK.
If the Strategy is to meet that challenge, the government must recognise that mobile connectivity has now eclipsed fixed connectivity in importance to UK consumers. We have passed the point of no return. The government must not only accept this new reality, but face its consequences and realign public policy accordingly.
Two-thirds of people in the UK now own a smartphone, compared with 39% in 2012, and it is now the device of choice for going online both at home and on the move. The roll-out of 4G has enabled people to access a wider range of digital services. Last year data use on mobile networks grew by 64% – much faster than on fixed broadband networks. As James Thickett, Ofcom’s Director of Research, has said: “Smartphones have overtaken laptops as the UK’s most popular internet device and are now the hubs of our daily lives.”
The country needs a digital infrastructure with the coverage and capacity to deliver the high quality mobile connectivity that consumers increasingly demand. That is why as an industry we are investing so much in our networks. O2 has already completed about 70% of its £3bn+ investment programme to deliver 2G, 3G and 4G coverage indoors and outdoors to 98% of the population by 2017.
For its part, the government needs to discover a Midas Touch in its efforts to support mobile connectivity. Past initiatives, while driven by good intentions, have been far from golden. The Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) has delivered very little in five years and is being wound up. Reform of the Electronic Communications Code has been talked about for years and promised by the government, but not progressed. And last year’s review of planning policy and mobile connectivity was encouraging but has so far delivered no reform.
As an industry we want to move faster, further and easier in delivering the necessary coverage and capacity to our customers – and we can if our efforts are supported by better public policy. In some parts of central London, where mobile demand and data use is at its highest, up to 90% of our planning applications to provide more infrastructure are refused and many potential landlords routinely refuse to countenance hosting even the most modest, low profile infrastructure. A local authority in another part of London recently turned down an O2 planning application on the grounds that local residents could use home landlines and desktop computers instead of their smartphones!
Left unchecked, this type of reactionary thinking will cost the UK its current position of digital leadership – and damage our ambition to be a centre of excellence, innovation and investment in Internet of Things based technology. It will be a drag on the digital economy and prevent the full benefits of digital technology being converted for consumers, for businesses and for the government itself. Public policy must not let that happen.
As a nation, keeping up in the digital race is not enough. We need to keep ahead. The forthcoming Digital Strategy offers the government an opportunity to make clear that the UK’s digital infrastructure is not secondary to other national networks, such as road and rail, but one of the most important infrastructure networks for our future – a future that is digital and increasingly driven by demand for greater mobile connectivity from UK consumers and businesses. Let’s give the people what they want.