Last week, the UK Government revealed its Levelling Up plan – its 2030 plan to transform the UK and ensure that regions that may feel long-forgotten are given the attention and investment to build a more prosperous future. At the heart of the new plan is the commitment to equip a large majority of the UK with access to 5G and/or gigabit-capable broadband. I say at the heart of the plan because without it, it is hard to see how the Government can deliver on many of the other “Missions” it has laid out – such as increasing productivity, literacy rates, improved transport networks, and the goal for cities to compete on a global scale.
Key goals include:
- By 2030, pay, employment and productivity will have risen in every area of the UK, with each containing a globally competitive city, with the gap between top performing and other areas closing.
- By 2030, the UK will have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for the majority of the population.
- By 2030, the number of primary school children achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths will have significantly increased. In England, this will mean 90% of children will achieve the expected standard, and the percentage of children meeting the expected standard in the worst performing areas will have increased by over a third.
So, with improved and increased connectivity pivotal to the levelling up plan, where does the UK stand today? Answer: behind many of its rivals across Europe and the world.
When it comes to 5G, it has the potential to one day be more readily available, more easily than fixed-line alternatives; but currently, the UK is not in the conversation on 5G performance and availability across the top nations – South Korea leads the way in speed with Norway and Sweden taking the no.1 and no.2 spots in Europe. In the overall 5G availability stakes, the UK is below Spain, Finland, Greece, Netherlands, Denmark, amongst others across the globe. Looking at major cities, London currently sits way down the list of top cities for 5G speed, behind Dublin, Paris, Zagreb, Bucharest and Madrid.
Gigabit broadband paints a slightly better picture with around 1 in 4 homes in the UK now able to upgrade or access gigabit-capable internet, but the real test for the infrastructure providers, such as Openreach, O2 Virgin and Cityfibre is how many households take up full fibre when available. This is a huge investment for the providers and for them to continue to upgrade the network, customers need to come on board.
A more alarming figure is not where the UK sits in terms of fast, reliable connectivity, but that according to Ofcom there are still 1.5m people within the UK that do not have access to the internet, for many they cannot afford the associated cost, or do not have the basic skills needed to take advantage. This “digital divide” in the UK has intensified during the pandemic. And we know that a lack of internet access during the lockdown periods of the past years has directly impacted the education of many disadvantaged children across the country. With many courses and much learning moving online, this has a growing potential to impact the education levels for hundreds of thousands of UK pupils.
Many in the technology industry are trying to change this. Vodafone is working hard on its everyone.connected commitment, while The Good Foundation set up the National Databank to help those without access to connectivity, but with the increased cost of living, the ability for many to keep connected is going to be a challenge.
To realise the goal of nearly all the UK having access to 5G by 2030, the Government needs to throw real energy and investment behind its commitment to connectivity and work in partnership with the key players in the telecoms industry, who are fully focussed on building 5G and full fibre networks. It is going to take a big investment and even more support for those that need it most, but if the past few years have taught us anything it’s that we cannot underestimate the true value of being connected.