Policy Must Now Pivot Towards Our Digital Infrastructure

In the introduction to the 2019 Annual Report of the Infrastructure Delivery Authority, CEO Matthew Vickerstaff wrote: “There’s no doubt that from a delivery point of view, the legacy of EU Exit will be profound”, challenging Government, as it did, to find new ways of joint working and providing cross-functional support to create effective solutions.

It is a fair bet to predict that the 2020 Annual Report will read: “The legacy of Covid 19 will be profound”, or words to that effect.

The Covid 19 epidemic struck the UK with such speed and ferocity, that the UK was jolted into collective joint action. Who could fail to be impressed by how quickly the Nightingale Hospitals were brought into service – every bit as efficiently as the much vaunted Chinese? It reminded us of what can be done if we all put our minds to it.

In the mobile sector, the most visible immediate impact of Covid 19 and the associated lockdown was the very rapid acceleration of patterns of usage and behaviour that had been emerging over many years, most notably:

  • Increased working from home (WFH)
  • Increased on-line shopping/home delivery
  • Increased consumption of on-line entertainment
  • Increased use of video-conferencing platforms for work and play

These factors resulted in large rises in mobile (and fixed) network traffic. For example, Vodafone stated that in the two weeks to 25th March, they saw a 30% increase in mobile and fixed internet traffic and a 25% increase in mobile voice traffic – a very large and rapid increase over a short period, with which the networks coped very well.

Once we emerge from the Covid 19 epidemic, these levels of traffic and these ways of behaving are very unlikely to be fully reversed. Anecdotally, many employers have been surprised at how little productivity was affected by home-working. And many employees welcomed the reduction in travel and the extra flexibility that home-working allows, (even roles which rely on large corporate systems - such as some call centre functions – were undertaken from home. The Australian operator Telstra has announced that home working for customer support will become permanent.)

In addition to these changes in behaviour, the lockdown saw the emergence of on-line home learning and on-line/video patient consultations. While the former is not going to be a full substitute for attending school, there plenty of scope for using on-line more effectively for learing and training. On-line GP consultations are very likely to play a substantial role in general practice, particularly with high risk patient groups for whom visits to a GP surgery and exposure to Coronavirus is likely to be a risk for the time being.

There remain considerable uncertainties on what the near term and long term impacts of Covid 19 will be. Undoubtedly, though, it will be the digital economy that provides the engine for reviving the UK’s wider economy. Governments must start to pursue policies now that ensure the UK is well placed to return to growth, as we emerge from lockdown.

At an international level, all Governments will have to work collaboratively towards the twin goals of controlling the spread of the virus but also recharging the global economy, with policies that promote free trade and a diverse global supply chain. The instinct to retrench within national boundaries must be resisted. That would be very bad for economic recovery everywhere.

At a national level, policy must unavoidably pivot away from our physical infrastructure and towards our digital infrastructure. To repeat, it is very unlikely that usage and behaviours seen during the crisis – more working from home, more on-line shopping, more remote GP consultations will return to pre-crisis levels.

Moreover, the UK should not want to lose all the environmental gains that have accrued from the reductions in travel to work.

Investment in digital infrastructure, in consequence, must now benefit from a much more favourable investment environment.

Mobile UK has been pressing for a number of measures to promote investment in digital, for example:

  • Reform of Permitted Development Rights for mobile infrastructure
  • Business rates holidays for new mobile infrastructure
  • Wide adoption of the reformed Electronic Communications Code (whereby providers pay similar rates to power and water companies to occupy land)

As we look to revive our economy, these policies must now be pursued with urgency, both to support the recently announced £1bn investment in rural mobile coverage (the Shared Rural Network programme) and also investment in 5G.

As life returns to ‘normal’ we will look to the digital economy to lead the revival. Policy reform now to support digital rollout will set us on the right path.

This article was authored by Hamish MacLeod, Director of Mobile UK