Karen Bradley: Britain's digital economy can be the envy of the world
From homes to businesses, the government is working to deliver the world-class connectivity Britain’s economy needs, writes Karen Bradley
For the past four years, something remarkable has been happening the length and breadth of the UK.
From the Highlands and Islands to Devon and Somerset, Northern Ireland to Norfolk, engineers have been installing superfast broadband connections at breakneck pace.
Working on a flagship £1.7bn government project, they have provided more than 4.1 million homes and business with access to the quick and reliable internet connections which are becoming a vital part of modern life.
That is almost 3,000 a day – equivalent to connecting a town the size of Hartlepool every month.
These are homes and businesses which would have otherwise been left behind by commercial providers because they are in hard-to-reach, often rural, areas.
The Broadband Delivery UK programme means that around 91 per cent of the country – 26 million premises – can now access superfast broadband. That is on track to reach 97 per cent by 2020 as another two million homes and businesses get connections.
But installing connections is only the first stage, because they are of no benefit if they are sitting in the ground unused.
While more than nine out of 10 households can access superfast broadband, only three in 10 have actually taken it up.
The lesson I take from this is clear: both government and industry have been good at putting the right technology in the ground, but less at good at letting people know it’s there and how to use it.
Our rollout programme doesn’t automatically boost broadband speeds – it needs people to sign up if they want to.
So the next stage is to make sure families and firms are aware of the superfast broadband they can get, and help them find the right deal for them.
As more and more of daily life is conducted online, the benefits are clear. Superfast speeds allow families to watch TV on multiple devices at the same time, or let kids do homework while parents do online banking and shopping.
The technology is ideal for most businesses too, allowing bosses to run websites and buy and sell online, and is expected to carry on meeting these needs for years to come.
MPs can play big role by pointing constituents towards information on availability and how to take advantage, and we have set up a broadband checker website, www.gov.uk/gosuperfast, to help.
We are also looking at other ways to boost take-up, which is a win-win-win: consumers get a better service, it encourages providers to invest, and when more people sign up in BDUK areas, money is clawed back to pay for new connections.
But I also understand that many families and businesses, often in rural areas, do not have the internet they want – and the government is working hard to put that right.
As part of our commitment to build a country that works for everyone, the Digital Economy Bill will introduce a new legal right to request fast, affordable broadband wherever people live and work. This “universal service obligation” means that by 2020 everyone will be able to get a connection of at least 10Mbps – around half the speed of superfast, but still quick enough to download a half-hour TV show in two minutes.
It will put broadband on the same footing as other basic services like water and phone lines, because we know accessing the internet is not a luxury in the 21st century.
We are also boosting business broadband – addressing a key gap in our current rollout to help firms get the reliable, high-capacity connectivity they need.
And because technology does not stand still, neither are we.
In the Autumn Statement we announced more than £1bn to support digital infrastructure, aimed at kick-starting the installation of lightning-fast fibre broadband to millions more homes and businesses across the country.
We are also funding a series of ground-breaking trials to make sure the UK is a world-leader in exciting new 5G mobile networks.
All of this means the country will be fit to exploit major advances which are fast-approaching – like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and devices connected to the Internet of Things.
We know that making Britain’s digital economy the envy of the world means having digital connectivity to match.
We will deliver that world-class connectivity.
Karen Bradley is Conservative MP for Staffordshire Moorlands and the Culture Secretary