Contributed by Rt Hon Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham
What can Governments do to speed up technological progress, and to make the most of its economic and social benefits? These are surely among the most interesting of the policy challenges which modern Governments face.
In the 1980s, I worked for companies researching the markets for new technologies. I wrote a report in 1987 which forecast the market for broadband up to the year 2000. Then, fifteen years later, I became the Minister responsible for broadband roll-out in Tony Blair’s Government. Tony Blair set the goal that we should be the most competitive broadband market among the G7 group of leading industrialised countries by 2005 — and we just about made it. It was an important economic and social achievement.
The next milestone was superfast broadband. “We will be the first country in Europe to extend superfast 100 mbps broadband access across most of the population”, promised the Conservative Party’s Technology Manifesto in 2010. This target wasn’t achieved, but the Coalition Government did invest heavily in superfast. The Conservative manifesto went on to promise: “We will unleash private sector investment to build this superfast broadband network by opening up network infrastructure, easing planning rules and boosting competition.”
Unfortunately, however, ministers in office made a terrible mistake. Far from boosting competition, they handed all the public funding for terrestrial superfast broadband to a single provider, BT. In practice, they abandoned the political consensus, initially established by the Conservatives in 1984 and affirmed in their 2010 manifesto, that competition was the best driver for progress on telecoms.
As a result, whilst the UK’s position on superfast broadband looks reasonable — depending on how you measure it — our position is terrible on provision of high capacity optical fibre to the home, as opposed to more traditional copper wires. The next wave of network improvement will be based on fibre to the home, and, on the most recent European assessment I have seen of that, we are in joint bottom place with Greece. Fortunately a more enlightened policy has been adopted by Ministers since 2016, with a new willingness to support more innovative approaches from competing providers. It is estimated that alternative network providers now reach a million UK homes with full fibre, twice as many as BT.
There is a close link between the roll out of high capacity optical fibre in the telecommunications network and deployment of next generation technology — 5G — in mobile networks. These will be much faster than current 4G services, offering higher data speeds and better reliability and supporting more sophisticated digital applications. The UK won’t be the leader in implementing 5G services, but there is a widely held ambition that we should at least be an early adopter.
Professor William Webb, of the Communications Policy Panel of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) (and the IET’s President in 2014–15) argues that, over the next few years:
● Artificial intelligence (AI) technology will mature, becoming widely used in the office — for example for excellent speech recognition;
● The Internet of Things, biometrics and robotics will also be widely deployed in offices, mainly to reduce the costs of administration and maintenance;
● Some sectors, such as agriculture and manufacturing, will make widespread use of the Internet of Things to improve productivity;
● There will be a gradual growth in driverless cars and lorries — and trains and buses.
These will all require big increases in the communications capacity available to businesses and households.
Professor Webb cautions against exuberant predictions of society being rapidly transformed through digital technology. Society is becoming concerned about the impact of digital, and those concerns will constrain the pace of development. A quarter of teenagers have mental health issues. He acknowledges — as former Facebook executives, and even Facebook itself, recently have — that use of digital technology has contributed to the problem, although new technologies such as AI may also be the best way to tackle them.
The Home Secretary’s recent strategy on violent crime argues that social media is partly to blame for the rapid recent increase in violence, particularly among young people, and that these harms need to be addressed. And there is growing public concern about the use being made by the technology giants of the data they hold about all of us.
Some argue that technological development will lead to massive future cuts in job numbers. I am sceptical about this. We have heard similar warnings ever since the 1970s, but, as technological development makes some jobs redundant, so it opens up the need for new ones. It seems more likely that we will need to manage the impact of rapid, technology-driven changes in the labour market — such as the dramatic recent growth of zero hours jobs and insecure employment — rather than a big drop in the total number of jobs. We will need a strategy for rapid, effective skills training, so that people can be equipped for the new jobs which will be created.
My conclusion is that it remains strongly in the UK’s national interest, on both economic and social grounds, to build a high speed network, available as widely as possible, as quickly as we can. We need a new push to establish a leading edge telecoms infrastructure in the UK, to raise productivity levels as we urgently must, and to facilitate the development in the UK of world-beating technologies, where history shows we can do extremely well. As the Government seems determined that we should abandon the economic advantages of membership of the European single market, this is an opportunity for the UK which we must grasp.
The IET has been leading in recent work about the policy challenges which 5G presents. They make the point that “there will be a huge investment gap between the coverage deliverable by the market with today’s way of doing things and the 5G quality of coverage needed to transform the economy”. The gap could be bridged, at least in part, through significant public funding, as has been attempted for superfast broadband since 2010. But IET argues that the most productive approach would be to change the regulatory framework to allow things to be done in a less costly way — for example, by encouraging the sharing of infrastructure between different providers.
There is also a host of policy issues to iron out. For example, planning policies governing fibre roll out often differ between central and local government, and between different local areas; and — despite efforts over a number of years — the business rates payable to local Councils are still much less for copper infrastructure than they are for fibre. In a helpful but temporary fix, the Government is providing 100% business rates relief for new fibre infrastructure for a five year period from 1 April 2017.
These are key issues for public policy. In October, the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (Pictfor) and All Party Parliamentary Group for Broadband and Digital Communications held a briefing in the House of Commons on 5G and connectivity. In conjunction with the IET, a second joint meeting will be held on 9 May, looking at how regulatory and other initiatives can help the UK become a world leader in 5G.
The technologies have moved on by leaps and bounds since I was doing my market forecasts over thirty years ago. But — today, as then — the policy challenges are large and vital. And they remain fascinating.
Rt Hon Stephen Timms has been Labour Member of Parliament for East Ham since 1994. He served as a Minister from 1998 to 2010. He is a member of the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union, and an officer of the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (Pictfor).