The government must pursue rural broadband with the “verve” and “passion” of the Victorian electrification and rail programmes.
In 2011, the government announced a £530m plan to give 90 per cent of households in every UK local authority access to superfast broadband by May 2015 with a further £300m, if needed, through the Broadband Delivery Programme.
Last month’s spending review earmarked £250m of the £300m to extend high-speed service to 95 per cent of homes by 2017, but the business lobbying group’s Let’s Get Digital report warns it is a mistake to hold back the investment until after the next election.
It says plans to wait until after the next election are symptomatic of short-term thinking from politicians on the digital infrastructure the UK economy needs – with fears from industry that broader digital policy is facing a “cliff-edge” in two years.
Katja Hall, CBI chief policy director, said: “Broader, faster digital networks are revolutionising how society and business operate, just as the Victorian rail and electrification systems transformed the world in the 1800s.
“The UK has a positive story to tell on digital but we cannot be complacent if we want to stay ahead. Politicians of all parties must set aside the carping and map out digital plans together for the next decade and beyond. Too often difficult decisions are kicked into the long grass.”
“Firms and industry need to know where they stand before investing for the long-term, with digital now as fundamental to business as transport or energy networks. Digital policy is not an optional add-on, it’s central to fuelling long-term growth through inward investment, job creation and exports,” said Hall.
The report calls on the three major parties to agree urgently on plans for the next decade and beyond, and argues it would be more cost-effective to target the cash at existing local schemes and a wider range of providers to drive up connectivity now, than start again in 2015.
Hall said: “We cannot wait another two years for this investment to start flowing and we need clarity on the further £50m originally set aside, which still remains uncommitted. It will be far quicker to invest in existing innovative, on-going local and industry schemes now to unlock economic and social benefits.”
Despite the UK already boasting the world’s biggest online retail market the report warns that international competitors are starting to catch up quickly and thousands of smaller firms are still not maximising digital technology in how they operate.
“None of the on-going work to boost digital infrastructure will matter if the new networks are not used,” said Hall. “You can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink and we’ve seen the impact of even well-established high street firms not moving with the times.
“Both industry and government must work harder to give smaller firms the confidence and skills to shift online, where their customers are. We must make sure all the upgrade work does not go waste if we want to stay ahead of the rest of the world.”
The CBI’s Let’s Get Digital report is available here.