Connectivity can boost productivity in the North

We need to prepare businesses and workers with the skills they need to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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Digital technology is transforming every element of the way we live, and building the right infrastructure to provide excellent connectivity for businesses and individuals is vital to the economic regeneration of the North of England.

The potential rewards are compelling. Research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research has shown that full fibre broadband could boost labour productivity by nearly £59bn by 2025, and bring another half a million people into the workplace, including people currently not working due to geographic limitations and those who require flexible hours. BT is investing £2.1bn annually in full fibre and 5G infrastructure to enable this change.

However, digital infrastructure needs to be underpinned by a significant investment in skills if we are to rebalance the wider UK economy. At the end of last year BT launched Skills for Tomorrow, a ground-breaking initiative that aims to empower 10 million people, families and businesses across the UK with the skills they need to flourish in the digital world. The commitment is ambitious but essential.

Research shows that 17.3m adults in work lack the digital skills they need for their job, while 11.9m adults lack the essential digital skills needed for day-to-day life, and that figure is stubbornly static.

This skills deficit costs the UK £63bn in lost GDP per year and it risks deepening social divisions and undermining economic productivity.

At BT we think of this as a “double disadvantage” – where digital skills become yet another hurdle for people who are already struggling.

It is important for business too. A third of SMEs expect to invest more in technology in 2020 and believe that their internet connection will grow in importance. However, our research shows that the biggest barrier to SMEs investing in digital skills is motivation. This is why within our overall ambition we aim to reach a million small business owners and their employees by 2025.

Digital technology is a key enabler in all four of the government’s Grand Challenges outlined in the Industrial Strategy, and we need to prepare businesses and workers with the skills they need to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

For example, the introduction of 5G marks a milestone on the UK’s journey to become a true digital nation. The deployment of 5G technology across the Northern Powerhouse geography will enable true end-to-end connectivity in our cities. In real terms, this can translate to smarter networks, where transport can move as efficiently as possible reducing congestion and delays; a revolution in healthcare, enabling diagnoses and treatment to be delivered remotely; and ultimately a complete re-thinking of the delivery of public services.

Most excitingly, 5G is already live with active sites in the UK’s major cities, including Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Hull and Sunderland, with rapid expansion planned over the coming year.

Working in partnership with the North’s established devolved institutions, world-renowned universities and leading tech companies we can address the challenges and opportunities presented by digital technology to maximise both its economic and social potential.

Ed Petter is BT’s group corporate affairs director. For more information, please visit: www.bt.com

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