Home » 5G » Why digital infrastructure is set to become ‘the backbone of Britain’

Praveen Shankar

UK&I Technology, Media and Telecommunications Market Leader,
Ernst & Young LLP

After the pandemic and Brexit, the digital economy will be a key driver for UK growth.

World-class fibre and mobile connectivity will play a critical role in supporting the UK’s digital promise. In this light, the very best infrastructure is not a ‘nice to have’ for businesses. It’ll be mission critical. The good news is that the UK is Europe’s leading destination for technology investment and innovation and has more unicorns than France and Germany combined. “That’s due to a number of factors,” says Praveen Shankar, UK&I Technology, Media and Telecommunications Market Leader, Ernst & Young LLP. “The UK has a cosmopolitan culture, entrepreneurial mindset and sought-after skills base. It is also well-known for its ease of doing business.”

Digital networks will become the backbone of Britain, he stresses, and the Government’s levelling up programme will have an important role to play. “54% of investors are telling us that the digital economy will be the main driver of UK growth,” says Shankar. “Meanwhile, when we asked SMEs: ‘Would your business benefit more from government investment in physical or digital infrastructure?’, only 17% said physical infrastructure. So this underlines business expectations around digital.”

Digital infrastructure is the lifeblood for businesses

If it wasn’t already obvious, the pandemic has underlined why fast, reliable connectivity is so crucial for UK companies. “Digital infrastructure is the new electricity,” says Shankar. “It’s the lifeblood that enables them to do business. Without it, the economy would have come to a standstill during COVID-19.”

Shankar is a passionate advocate for wider digital inclusion. He is optimistic, but admits that the UK is ‘middle of the road’ in terms of full-fibre network deployment and needs to up its game. “We lag behind in terms of roll-out and have dropped to 47th place in global broadband speed rankings,” he says. “We also lag behind in terms of market penetration. Only 21% of UK households had access to full-fibre connections, while less than 2% of postcodes were receiving gigabit speeds. For 5G, UK adoption stands at 1%, whereas in South Korea it’s 23%.”

Digital infrastructure is the new electricity. It’s the lifeblood that enables [UK companies] to do business. Without it, the economy would have come to a standstill during COVID-19.

To overcome these challenges, companies, particularly SMEs, need greater awareness of what 5G and full-fibre is, and what it can really do for their businesses. “Most people I talk to believe that 5G is simply a faster 4G,” says Shankar. “In reality, not only will 5G provide unprecedented speed for consumers, it will also enable game-changing reliability, low latency, and high capacity for industry too. It will power the internet of things — driving innovation in sectors such as healthcare and manufacturing — and change our lives in ways we cannot imagine. It’s going to be transformational.”

Use cases that demonstrate big enterprise benefits

To encourage adoption, companies need to see powerful use cases which bring digital infrastructure to life and demonstrate how it can deliver value for their business. “We need to demystify this subject,” says Shankar. “5G providers need to articulate a more coherent vision, and fibre providers need to provide clarity about what full-fibre is and what it can do for their customers.” More has to be done to solve the digital trust problem too. According to EY’s latest research, 71% of households are very cautious about disclosing personal data online.

Meanwhile, on the supply side, it’s vital that network deployment is made easier for telecom companies, which face significant barriers including planning permission and a limited supply of skilled technicians to deploy and optimise their networks.

“Different stakeholders will have to work together to deliver strong digital infrastructure and adoption,” says Shankar. “This includes regulators, governments, telecom companies, technology companies, businesses and consumers. The UK needs an ecosystem mindset to avoid being left behind. I’m very positive about our digital future because investors, businesses and consumers are clear that they want it. So we will get there. The question is: how quickly?”

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