COVID-19 changed everything – especially our attitude towards technology and the exponential rise of the importance of connectivity. While the pandemic keeps us in our homes, connectivity allows us to learn online, doctors to consult patients using telemedicine, and many of us to work from home. From being a nice-to-have, the government’s focus has shifted to securing the internet as an essential utility.
During his campaign, Johnson promised an increase in full-fibre broadband meant to spread better connectivity throughout the UK. While hitting his exact target is unlikely, levelling up nationwide is clearly an important aspiration and ‘Red Wall’ Tories will continue to hold him account and press for infrastructure investment in their seats.
Moreover, the government has talked about tech being an essential part of the recovery strategy. Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings’ reported ambitions include for the UK to create its own tech giants and rival Silicon Valley.
Underpinning this is connectivity – from better UK-wide broadband to 5G. There is an understanding that 5G supports emerging technologies such as driverless cars, one area in which the UK seeks to lead. Another area, which is cited in speeches, is that the UK is leading on the adoption and use of digital communications. The government has shown it is willing to take action to support this further by bringing the European Electronics Code into law and additional measures to encourage the rollout of gigabit broadband.
Better connectivity is hard to disagree with. The Labour Party itself promised free broadband during the last election. For years backbench MPs have engaged frequently on the topic of connectivity – an easy win with constituents as virtually every place has received at least some complaints about internet service. Particularly passionate are those representing rural locations who constantly pressure for increased connectivity support.
From my experience running dozens of policy events on the topic over the past five years, connectivity is an issue with broad support which a wide range of politicians want to engage with – the challenge is getting them to understand emerging developments, such as 5G, and the reasons for its importance.
In February, the government reshuffle resulted in some changes within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Oliver Dowden MP was appointed Culture Secretary, with reports claiming that his main mission would be to take on the BBC.
Meanwhile, Connectivity Minister Matt Warman stayed in place with his brief narrowed to focus even more on the issue. Since becoming an MP in 2015, he has worked on driving digital connectivity running the APPG on Digital Communications and Connectivity and co-chairing the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum.
Rounding off DCMS for tech is John Whittingdale, who is overseeing tech sector growth and standards including the National Data Strategy, and Caroline Dineage whose remit is on digital culture. Connectivity is currently seeing active legislation and investment and the National Data Strategy is in consultation until 2 December, while online harms legislation is clearly not a government priority.
Security and network resilience are the main aims of the activity. Following banning Huawei from the network, there is increased concern that there are only two vendors.
The government is hoping that comprehensive action in three aligned areas will help to get more vendors into this space by demonstrating the case for its adoption. The activity includes the Telecoms Security Bill, ongoing diversification work and the 5G testbeds and trials programme.
The Telecoms Security Bill is meant to increase telecommunications security by giving the government and Ofcom new powers to drive up security standards. This will be done through a new framework which will place more requirements on operators and will apply across the industry, meaning that both telecommunications operators and equipment suppliers are covered.
Under diversification, work is being done on a multifaceted diversification strategy and a new taskforce has recently been created. This new strategy will promote interoperability as a tactic to achieve further diversity and competition amongst suppliers operating under three core elements: 1) securing the supply chains of incumbent suppliers, 2) bringing new scale vendors into the UK market by removing barriers to entry and providing commercial incentives, and 3) investing in research and development particularly to build interoperable solutions.
The government is open to solutions which could expand connectivity. One large focus is on physical connectivity, building networks throughout the UK and putting in wires where needed. Another topic is spectrum use. DCMS recently announced a completed project changing how the spectrum is being used for better connectivity and spectrum allocations is likely to come up again. The Electronic Communications Code is expected to be consulted on further, and topics supporting the government agenda will be welcome input. With the push for interoperability as a critical factor in secure future-facing networks, the government will also look to explore more ways to create open interfaces in wireless telecommunications (Open RAN).
In looking ahead to what’s next, those engaged in the telecoms space would be well-minded to remember the overarching story. Connectivity is important because of what it enables. An upcoming milestone will be the forthcoming Digital Strategy, which will outline the government’s vision for a tech-led recovery. In addition to underpinning a future-facing economy, the most successful stories will also talk about the impact expanded connectivity will have on lives across the UK – from enabling tech entrepreneurs to driving digital inclusion.