Connecting Together

By Derek McManus, Chief Operating Officer, O2 Business at Telefónica UK

Last week I was invited to speak at Heathrow’s ‘Taking Business Further’ session at the International Festival for Business in Liverpool – a three-week event celebrating business innovation across a wealth of industries, from manufacturing to energy to digital.

You might wonder what the connection is between airports and mobile connectivity, and the reality is that both industries are on the cusp of significant evolution, and huge opportunities in connecting UK business in every way possible.

We recognise the importance of the Government taking action on airport capacity to increase the connections we need for growth. A well-connected country means improved trade links, access to a broader pool of skills and a boost to business investment.

Mobile infrastructure is just as crucial to our future economic success. It may not be as visible as our roads, railways or airports but the connectivity it provides is every bit as important. After all, digital communications are transforming our world: the way we keep stay in touch, the way we work and how we access information and entertainment.

To give you a sense of the scale and pace of that change: more than 23 million people have already signed up for 4G and eight out of ten adults in the UK will own a smartphone by the end of 2016. It means demand for data is doubling every year. Our mobile devices are the ‘remote controls’ of our lives, allowing us to work, chat to friends and catch up on our favourite TV series, always on the move.

For many years, the UK has been a leader in this space, consistently adopting the newest technologies. The UK was one of the first markets to see the launch of Apple and Android Pay. To make sure we stay in this strong position and people and businesses get the most out of connectivity, we need a collective effort. That means involving communities, local authorities, government, regulators, landlords and developers – to build a digital infrastructure that’s fit for the future.

So what would this partnership involve? For government it means improving planning laws and prioritising mobile infrastructure. In the recent Queen’s Speech, it was great to see a new Digital Economy Bill aiming to simplify planning rules for mobile infrastructure, helping to cut delays and costs and Sadiq Khan’s commitment to improving the Capital’s connectivity and tackling its ‘notspots’ is very welcome.

We also need councils to support local planning applications with an understanding that mobile connectivity will improve prosperity for local people. And we’d like to work with developers to help them consider mobile connectivity at the start of their projects, so that the people living and working in those buildings can feel reassured that connectivity is guaranteed for years to come.

If we all work together the benefits can be enormous. In March, we revealed the outcome of our ambitious St Helens project, which saw us pilot a ’Digital Communities’ programme to improve the town’s digital health. We wanted to demonstrate how digital engagement can make a real difference to a community, its businesses and local people. In just ten weeks, we reached more than 42,000 people in the St Helens community. We improved the digital engagement of the town by 15% and moved St Helens up 17 places in the Digital High Street Index. Our work improved the productivity of local businesses and increased residents’ access to local services.

Initiatives like this shouldn’t have to happen in isolation – every community, every business and every individual should be able to enjoy these benefits. In generations past, we’ve shown the vision and courage to meet future infrastructure needs, and we’ve reaped the rewards. This is why on airports and digital infrastructure,it’s time to look to the future.