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20 September 2018updated 17 Sep 2021 10:23am

Building the digital infrastructure that Britain deserves

Britain has the world’s leading digital economy, but our infrastructure is holding it back. TalkTalk's chief executive explains her plan to fix it.

By Tristia Harrison

It’s just 30 years since the internet became publicly available. In that time, it’s transformed our economy and society quicker than any technology before it. It’s changed everything from how we work, how we eat and how we fall in love.

The good news is that Britain has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of that change. While Silicon Valley often gets the headlines, Britain has built a world-leading digital economy. We have the most enthusiastic digital shoppers in the world and tech hubs that are a magnet for global investment and talent. That success is driving huge growth. The tech sector is growing over 2.5 times faster – and creating jobs five times faster – than the rest of the economy. And they’re good, skilled jobs, with salaries nearly 40 per cent higher than average. But there’s a major problem.

Our success has been in spite of our infrastructure, not because of it. Britain has the world’s leading digital economy, but some of the world’s worst digital infrastructure. Our digital economy hasn’t quite been built on sand, but on antiquated copper wires. Invented by the Victorians for phone calls, it’s done an admirable job getting us this far, but it wasn’t made for emails or iPlayer, let alone for the automated economy of the future. It’s slow, unreliable and prone to weather damage. You can’t have an economy that relies on it not raining too heavily.

The solution is replacing copper with fibre than runs directly into homes and businesses. “Full fibre” connections are 20 times faster than today’s average speeds and significantly more reliable. Unfortunately, Britain has some of the lowest full fibre coverage in the world. Rival economies already have coverage of over 80 per cent. The UK stands at just 4 per cent. On some measures, Kazakhstan, Macedonia and Angola are ahead of us.

The good news is that change is finally coming. After years of relying on a monopoly with little incentive to invest in world-class infrastructure, the regulator is unleashing a wave of competition in the market. That allows companies like TalkTalk to invest in building the world-class broadband Britain needs. We’re teaming up with Infracapital, an investment fund, to create a new company that will invest £2bn building in a new full fibre network to over three million homes and businesses.

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As Britain’s challenger telecoms company, TalkTalk’s mission is to democratise the market. We want to ensure the whole of Britain benefits from digital services, not just a privileged few. That’s why we’re determined to do things slightly differently.

First, we’re deliberately not starting in London. We want to use our investment to help rebalance Britain’s digital economy, ensuring regional economies see the benefit from faster, more reliable connectivity. That’s why our pilot project is based in York, where we have worked with the council to make it Britain’s first Gigabit City with the nation’s fastest internet.

Secondly, we are challenging the industry to ensure full fibre is affordable to all. In York we priced full fibre at the same price as standard services. As the value provider in the market, we want to make it a mass-market product, not a premium one, so that nobody is left behind. Price is not the only barrier to ensuring the whole of Britain benefits; skills matter too. Eleven million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills, such as the ability to send an email or complete an online transaction. Without action to address Britain’s skills challenge, our digital revolution is at risk of being a partial one with some groups being left behind. Momentum is building behind a full fibre and connected Britain; after years of delay, the threat of competition is working. A range of companies are starting to respond to pressure and several, including the traditional provider Openreach, have announced building plans. No single company can do this alone so it’s good to see the market step up to invest.

To make these plans a reality, we need support from government – both local and national – by making it easier and quicker to build in local areas. That means making it easier to get permission to build on private land and simplifying rules for street works. We also need Ofcom to enforce rules on infrastructure sharing, to make the most of what we already have. Britain can be proud of its digital successes, but we can’t afford to be complacent. We need to turbocharge our investment in the infrastructure our digital economy depends on and ensure the whole of Britain benefits from the world-class connectivity that consumers and businesses deserve.

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