Mainland UK Fiddling While Rome Burns

Britain Should Look to Northern Irish Example

The Northern Irish approach to achieving faster broadband is interesting.

There are around 783,272 dwellings in Northern Ireland (April 2017)*. Some 27.4% are described as small rural settlements or isolated rural dwellings.**

For the Northern Irish government that is a significant proportion and, despite the perceived challenges, there is a will to create a framework for broadband that is inclusive of even those living in the most far-flung areas of the countryside.

Most interesting of all is the calculation around return on investment.

The government puts the economic, social and environmental benefits of its proposed £150m investment in ultra-fast fibre broadband in rural areas of Northern Ireland at £1.2 billion. To me that spells a very clever investment.

So it doesn’t have to be a particularly brave step to make investments like this. In the context of government budgets, £150m is small beer.

BT commissioned an independent report*** from economic consultancy DotEcon to examine potential benefits from investment in rural areas. The report estimated that, for every £1 spent, there would be a benefit of around £8 to the region’s economy over 15 years.

Investment on that scale in a small country will punch well above its weight. The ambition is that ultra-fast broadband will help reduce economic inactivity, improve collaboration, increase global competitiveness and support digital sectors.

Not surprisingly the biggest gain would be in increased jobs.

Estimates suggest gains amounting to £890 million by 2033, or about £6 for every £1 invested.

Those in employment contribute more and cost less. It’s a simple equation and a strong argument. Join up all of the figures and surely the benefits of this kind of investment are impossible to refute

Other ‘ripple’ benefits of the expansion of ultra-fast fibre broadband in rural areas are highlighted: potential carbon abatement through home or teleworking, e-commerce and the use of cloud computing for instance.

So, vital for the economy as well as environmental and even social wellbeing — that’s compelling.

The figures work, the advantages are legion — not least competitive advantage — and the thinking is sound. Is mainland UK fiddling while Rome burns?

*https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/news/northern-ireland-housing-statistics-2016-17

** https://www.nihe.gov.uk/nihcs_2016_preliminary_report.pdf

***https://www.irishnews.com/business/2018/06/04/news/fibre-broadband-roll-out-could-benefit-rural-economy-by-1-2-billion--1345608/