The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the “crucial need” for digital infrastructure across the UK, experts from the telecoms industry have told MPs.

Today, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee heard evidence on the impact Covid-19 has had on the future of digital technology. The pandemic has meant many individuals and businesses have become increasingly reliant on both mobile and fixed broadband for remote working, digital operations and communication, which some feared would overstretch the networks.

Richard Piggin, head of external affairs at Which? said that fortunately, the network has coped well with this additional usage.

“The general consensus is that the broadband network has held up pretty well over the last few months. We did some research with consumers at the end of June and over 70% of them said that their connections had met their needs during lockdown. So that’s pretty positive,” he said.

“That’s not to say that people still didn’t experience problems because they did. A third of those that we surveyed said that using their broadband more had led them to experience problems. A quarter said that their service had become more unreliable and back at the start of the lockdown, particularly in March and April, we heard from consumers who were struggling to get in touch with their provider.”

Piggin believes that the pandemic has highlighted the digital divide that exists between those with access to good quality broadband and those without.

“The last few months has reinforced how important it is to have good mobile and broadband connections and has also highlighted that there is still a digital divide across the country,” he said.

“It might seem obvious but those with good quality broadband will have been able to work from home, will have been able to stay in touch with friends and family, will have been able to home school. Those without good-quality connections will have struggled to do many of those things.”

According to 2019 figures from the Office for National Statistics, 5.2 million people in the UK have not accessed the internet in the previous three months. Piggin told MPs that this is an issue when “consumers are being required to engage with online services more and more” for everyday activities such as banking, grocery shopping and accessing universal credit.

“The crucial need for digital infrastructure across the UK”

The UK government has committed to rolling out gigabit broadband to everyone in the UK by 2025, allocating £5bn to complete what BT chief executive Philip Jansen has said will require “herculean effort”.

Felicity Burch, director of innovation and digital at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) believes that the past few months have highlighted the importance of investing in national digital infrastructure.

“Covid-19 has certainly highlighted the crucial need for digital infrastructure across the UK. During the crisis businesses and their people often working from home have relied on digital infrastructure both for work and their personal lives,” she said.

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“Really the question for us is more looking to the recovery and making sure slow internet connections don’t place a barrier on the recovery. When looking to some of these more future-focused technologies, industrial digitisation for example, around 45% of manufacturing companies [said] poor connectivity would be a barrier for them investing in that technology.

“During the crisis we have seen good performance but we’ve got to think quite carefully about some of the investments we’re going to need going forward to power the recovery. And we do need to make sure that the government is pulling out all of the stops to make sure gigabit-capable networks are delivered for the growth of the UK economy.”

She expressed that meeting the 2025 goal will be “challenging”, saying that “It won’t happen unless additional action is taken and is taken quickly”:

“[2025] is certainly a challenging target but good government targets often are challenging targets. We’ve had the target for about a year now and we really have seen some quite significant progress. We had the £5bn announced for the outside in programme. We think it’s really important that this is focused on harder to reach areas and rural areas,” Burch added.

“We’ve seen funding for the industry government proposals around the shared rural network to eliminate rural notspots, and we’ve seen things like the telecoms infrastructure bill which has improved access to tenant properties. I think the challenge is there is still quite a lot to do.

“Really critically making sure that that £5bn that the government has announced starts to get out of the door in 2021 so it can start driving and increasing investment.”

Educating consumers

The experts also raised concerns that a lack of awareness of the benefits gigabit connectivity could bring to both individuals and the economy could be holding back rollout.

A recent report by the Broadband Stakeholder Group highlighted the need to “improve consumer and business understanding of the benefits of gigabit broadband” and “Incentivise take-up of new gigabit broadband connections”.

“The marketing and advertising terminology is very confusing to consumers. It is one of those barriers. They do not understand the language used. Gigabit-capable technology- I’m not sure too many people would understand what that actually meant,” said Piggin.

“The onus is on the providers, on Ofcom and on the government to show the benefits of what [gigabit broadband] will bring and show them in a tangible form to consumers so consumers can understand it. Let’s not talk about the exact speed or the reliability of the network. What does it actually mean for you in your day-to-day lives? How easy would it be for you to connect, to speak to your friends and families, how easy would it be to learn online, to homeschool. All those things. How much better your life would be if you had a gigabit connection.”

CBI and Which have called on DCMS to create a “connectivity taskforce”  focused on generating business and consumer demand for gigabit broadband and 5G.

Evaluating new ways of working

In terms of applying the rapid switch to remote working seen in the last few months to more long-term business strategy, Harry Armstrong, head of technology futures at Nesta told MPs that the government must invest in “evaluating these new work practices”.

“There’s been a huge acceleration in the adoption of digitisation and technologies to allow all sorts of organisations and individuals to be able to continue working or work in new ways,” he said.

“Regionally and between different organisations and different individuals people are taking different approaches to using technology to overcome some of the problems created by Covid and lockdown. Trying to work out which of those is working and which isn’t is kind of the next stage.

“To keep some of these new approaches and new ways of working, there does need to be investment in evaluating these new work practices and building skills and learning from that. My fear is that Covid is going to reduce public funding at some point and evaluating what works and what doesn’t tends to be what government doesn’t invest in compared to other things.”

Huawei decision

MPs also raised the recent decision to remove Huawei technology from UK networks by 2027. In May, CBI said that banning Huawei could cost the country’s economy between £4.5bn and £6.8bn.

Burch said that the government’s decision could delay the rollout of both 5G and full fibre, and moving forward, it is important for the government to support service providers.

“The business community will be guided by the government when it comes to issues of national security. The challenge is that this decision will likely delay the rollout of full fibre, of 5G,” she said.

“The important thing now is making sure the government is working closely as possible with industry both in the shorterm, if service providers need to do things to comply with the new decision, they have support getting access to land. We need to think about investing in alternative technologies, investing in home-grown technologies even more.”


Read more: Why the pandemic has accelerated Industry 4.0 and what it means for businesses.