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UK economy is solid despite infrastructure, but that needs to change – TalkTalk CEO

Connected Britain Panel

Dodgy connectivity has not hindered the economy in the past, but the UK cannot rely on precedent if it is to be an economic heavyweight in the future.

“I think it should be said, the economy has been built despite our infrastructure not because of it,” said TalkTalk CEO Tristia Harrison at the Connected Britain event in London.

It is a statement which holds a lot of truth. As an island with a small population and limited natural resources, the UK has always punched above its weight in the global economy. This is due to a number of different factors, access to trade routes in previous centuries laid the foundations, but moving forward heritage means very little. If you don’t have a suitable digital infrastructure, you don’t have a chance in the digital economy.

“Without urgent action, we risk being left behind,” Harrison added.

The UK is currently in a suspect position. FTTH penetration is less than 5%, and while there are some interesting initiatives, positive statements of intent and newly emerging capital, more still needs to be done to ensure the UK does not slip into the realms of mediocrity.

While the government’s role in the whole saga does remain up for debate, we are noticing a slight change in attitude and success. We might make the odd poke at Minister for Fun Matt Hancock and his team, we are starting to feel more confident in his administration.

Last week at 5G World, Hancock commented the government was going to focus on regulating the industry and providing help with investment, but leave the business of telecommunications to the telcos. This was a welcome statement, and this morning Minister for Digital Margot James also added confidence to the role of government.

“I want to talk about what the government is doing to support all the efforts you are doing to get the country super connected more quickly,” James stated during her keynote.

The aim here is simple; rid the country of the digital divide, remove barriers to deployment, aid the telcos with investment and improve the UK’s competitiveness on the international stage. Although we will have to wait a couple of weeks for the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review to get a concrete idea of the government intentions and role, the comments are encouraging; it’s about creating the right environment for digital to thrive, not getting too involved.

James also feels the £400 million fund to aid the rollout of networks will be a suitable amount of cash, but this is not necessarily the ceiling. While there has been little evidence of the vast investments promised by the government to date, James highlighted her team would be constantly accessing what levels of government investment would be deemed appropriate and within the rules. This £400 million might go up, but we would also like to see more of it actually being spent.

The UK is lagging behind the leaders in the digital world as it stands. There seems to be a lot of talk, a lot of posturing and a lot of disagreements, but sooner or later we will need to see some more concrete action. CityFibre CEO Greg Mesch commented he almost missed the beginning of the conference due to being held up by Openreach roadworks, which he somehow managed to take credit for, so maybe this is the watershed moment we have been waiting for in the UK. Perhaps in 12 months we’ll be writing more positive headlines.

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