“In these exceptional times, the most precious commodity is confidence. Government has a golden opportunity with the National Infrastructure Strategy to set out an ambitious but deliverable plan for the nation’s economic infrastructure”. 

James Heath, CEO of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), commenting earlier this month was right. The coronavirus pandemic has not only brought with it a “golden opportunity” for the Government to deliver on its ambitious commitment to delivering gigabit-capable broadband across the country by 2025 and 5G by 2027, but it has brought the unprecedented need to deliver on it. 

By focusing on these core manifesto promises, the Government would do well to use the National Infrastructure Strategy later this Autumn to double-down its efforts to deliver the urgent digital infrastructure improvements needed across the UK. This renewed effort would play an instrumental  role in supporting the economic recovery of the UK, and in particular for the worst affected regions such as the North, Yorkshire and the Midlands.  

Covid-19 and the accelerated demand for “levelling-up” 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic and the shift to work-from-home, improving digital connectivity in the North and Midlands was crucial to the Government’s chances of “levelling-up” the country.

There is a whole host of evidence — not least in the articles published by Digital Tories — that show the direct benefits that would be felt by regions across the UK from the delivery of improved digital connectivity. Enhanced levels of productivity, greater economic activity and more employment opportunities, to name but a few.

More widely, enhanced digital connectivity delivers wider socio-economic benefits too. Such as the opportunity for remote healthcare services, real-time data sharing and a greater scope for the use of Artificial Intelligence. But for some parts of the country, simply getting decent broadband coverage remained to be a challenge throughout the lockdown period. 

A number of Blue Collar Conservative MPs have already called on the Government to scrap its plans for HS2, in light of the pandemic and have made the case that in order to truly deliver on the levelling up agenda, delivering high speed broadband should take precedence. 

Figures from the New Economics Foundation show that 40 percent of HS2’s benefits would flow to workers commuting to London, with only 18-10 percent going to workers in the North and Midlands. The case is compelling, the Government should consider re-prioritising the money, energy and attention from projects like HS2 to be spent speeding up the delivery of digital infrastructure. 

Supporting the Economic Recovery

Delivering on its ambitious targets for the rollout of 5G and gigabit capable broadband would be a great way for the Government to support the UK’s economic recovery; delivering economic output, capital investment and greater job opportunities are just some of the benefits that would be materialised across the country.  

A recent report published by the Centre for Policy Studies, found that a faster rollout of 5G infrastructure “would help deliver a quicker and stronger economic recovery for the UK.” The report supports the argument that the delivery of 5G across the country would significantly help the UK’s economic recovery, by generating £34.1bn in economic output if the Government meets its target of doing so by 2027. Even more so in the long-term, whereby the access to digital services and reliable connectivity that has been essential to the country’s response to Covid-19, will be integral to the resilience, economic security and productivity of our regions in the long-term. 

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs; the characteristics of large digital infrastructure projects — such as their long-term nature, their complexity and often their interdependence — means that the rollout of 5G and of gigabit-capable broadband offer significant opportunities for job creation in the face of record unemployment. A report by WPI Economics estimates that the rollout of 5G will create over 600,000 jobs in the UK by 2030, with potentially even greater productivity benefits being materialised in the most deprived parts of the UK. 

The challenges facing the country in light of the coronavirus pandemic are epic in scale; the government’s interventions and policy measures to support the economy have been historic in nature. It is therefore very reasonable to call for an unprecedented and unwavering focus on digital infrastructure delivery. While there is a myriad of technical, regulatory and political reasons behind the delays to the rollout of 5G and gigabit capable broadband, the coronavirus pandemic should not, and cannot be one of them.