Keeping Places Connected – The Essential Role of Digital in a COVID World

As COVID-19 continues to impact the UK economy and the longer-term implications begin to manifest, it’s clear that the country will experience some profound changes on a scale not seen during the lifetimes of most of us.

There has been a marked reduction in mobility across some of the UK’s largest cities and over 20% of businesses having furloughed staff using the government’s job retention scheme. Yet,  the pandemic has also helped to illustrate the country’s remarkable ability to adapt.

Working from home – the need for adaptation…

With upwards of 50% of workers across all sectors estimated to be working from home, COVID-19 has led to a huge shift in employment patterns. In 2019 just 5% of workers were regularly working from home – a marked difference. Sector leaders have already prompted a debate about the longer-term implications of these changes which looks likely to usher in entirely new ways of operating businesses. A prime example of this is Barclays, which has suggested it could massively reduce the numbers of employees in its Canary Wharf premises as part of a reimagined location strategy. Other businesses across a broad base of sectors, are expected to follow suit.

Digital infrastructure anchoring the economy…

The flexibility and robustness that many businesses have exploited is linked to digital infrastructure and wide availability of high-quality connectivity. In the midst of the crisis, the UK has been able to leverage its digital maturity to good effect, keeping places and people connected and the economy moving. In many ways, this has been a silent success story, yet one which may have longer-term consequences.

The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 has been a severe test for digital infrastructure networks and largely, they seem to have passed the test. Data bears this out in practice, with infrastructure coping well with shifting demand and changes in user behaviour. The stability of our digital networks is a timely demonstration of the importance of resilient national assets.

A reflection of sustained support and investment…

In many ways, this is the outcome of a decade of sustained government support. Driven by through funding, stimulus programmes, trials and market engagement, UK superfast broadband coverage has increased by over 50% in 9 years (current coverage is above 96%), 4G connectivity now extends to 91% of the country’s premises and investment in the latest generation of connectivity (full fibre/5G) is rapidly gathering pace.

Rebalancing the digital divide…

Yet, despite this momentum, there remains an issue of equity. Full fibre coverage is distinctly uneven with places such as Hull having from near ubiquitous coverage (98%+), whilst less than 1% of premises can access a gigabit connection in the Orkney Islands. Some areas also still don’t have a basic level of service; more than 50,000 premises are not able to access a decent fixed or mobile connection. COVID has underlined the vulnerability of these areas which were already missing out on the economic, social and environmental benefits associated with online access. Whilst the networks in place have done a stellar job, there is certainly more to do.

The government has set itself a goal to propel the UK towards a digital future backed with an ambitious funding commitment of £5bn to support a gigabit revolution which will push full fibre and 5G connectivity nationwide by 2025. Alongside commercial investments being made by fixed and mobile providers, this public investment will help make the country’s digital networks even more robust and importantly, globally competitive.

Looking ahead – securing digital infrastructure resilience…

COVID-19 has sharpened the focus and rationale for further investment. We at Hatch believe there are four key areas that will secure the UK’s future digital capability and underpin a more resilient economy:

  • Tackling remaining superfast not spots to ensure universal base access.
  • Rapidly accelerating gigabit connectivity at scale to build further resilience and be able to sustain greater reliance on digital solutions for work and learning.
  • Launch a national effort to work with:
    • business to drive take-up among employees
    • education institutions to move readily into the vanguard of online learning for every aspect of digital skills
    • and, public/voluntary services to make a step change on digital support and care services.
  • Additional effort to harness the UK’s cyber security and digital expertise to make our digital lives safer and more enriching.

We can learn powerful lessons from the pandemic. We have the agility to move quickly into dispersed digital employment patterns and we have the digital infrastructure to sustain safe, remote working. We now need to re-grow our economy and re-invent our services around new models of delivery that are agile, responsive and smart. The resilience of the UK’s economy will depend on it.

Please contact Chris Rawson and the Hatch Regeneris team for more information on how data and research can tell a digital story and establish the rationale for action.

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