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In this report, we dive into the vital role of digital connectivity to stimulate the UK’s recovery in 2021.

In brief

  • Why do we need a ‘Gigabit Britain’?
  • Closing the ‘digital divide’ and the key challenges and obstacles in the way of the UK achieving its long-term digital infrastructure ambitions.
  • 50% of SMEs believe that investment in gigabit infrastructure is ‘vital for the economic regeneration of the UK post-COVID-19’.
  • To deliver Gigabit Britain, a holistic approach is needed to drive both supply and demand in tandem with sustained action from Government, regulators and service providers alike.

Digital connectivity has never been more important — it is the lifeline by which we communicate with friends, family and colleagues. Its critical role has become even more apparent since the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling societal well-being and the continued functioning of our economy during a period characterised by physical isolation.

1. What is ‘Gigabit Britain’ and why do we need it?

Gigabit Britain is a government policy which aims to provide gigabit-capable connectivity across the UK. Gigabit-capable networks can broadly be classified as those with the potential to deliver gigabit internet speeds (1 Gbps/Gb) by leveraging current-generation technologies — such as FTTP and 5G mobile.

The benefits of digital infrastructure have been categorised into four key areas. Our own research shows that these benefits resonate with businesses across the UK.

●      Wellbeing

  • Improves living standards by boosting wage growth.
    • Empowers remote and flexible working through improved speed and reliability.
    • Minimises stress, anxiety and frustration by bringing communities closer together and supporting mental health.

●      Environmental

  • Cuts energy consumption by leveraging next-generation energy efficient telecoms technology.
    • Lessens environmental materials impact by using low-maintenance and low-emission materials.
    • Reduces travel pollution by encouraging virtual meetings and digital business practices.

●      Economic

  • Enables economic regeneration across the UK’s regions by driving GDP growth and creating new jobs.
    • Boosts employment rate by enabling business growth.
    • Increases productivity by reducing outages and enabling new technologies.

●      Technological

  • Fosters start-up growth by attracting talent and driving an innovative culture.
    • Facilitates new technology adoption by providing the infrastructure for innovation.
    • Aids business diversification by providing the foundation for new service offerings.

2. Delivering ‘Gigabit Britain’ requires urgent action and is critical to bridging the digital divide

The digital divide — where citizens in rural and deprived regions do not have access to the same quality of services available to those living in more affluent towns and cities. This is a long-standing challenge in the UK.

The Government’s broader ‘levelling up’ agenda has helped to bring this into focus. Meanwhile, digital is an increasingly important driver of future economic health: 50% of respondents in EY’s latest UK Attractiveness Survey believe it will drive UK growth, up from 26% citing it in 2019.

of respondents believe digital will help to drive UK growth up from 26% in 2019

Extending coverage to reach more than 85% of homes will be very challenging. EY analysis shows that the current average build rate for homes passed — the rate at which properties are enabled on gigabit-capable networks — would need to increase by 85%, equivalent to more than 10,000 per day, to even meet this reduced 2025 targetThis assumes that FTTP will deliver the majority of new gigabit capable connections going forward in the UK.

For more information on the key challenges to overcoming the digital divide, download the report.

3. Rising to the gigabit challenge: a holistic approach is essential

The better way the UK can realistically meet the Government’s targets is to take a holistic, end-to-end approach to drive both supply and demand in tandem.

This diagram highlights the interlinked issues, covering both demand and supply, that should be addressed to deliver ‘Gigabit Britain’. Crucially, all industry actors should recognise that this is a shared opportunity where proactive and sustained collaboration are fundamental to success.

Issues to be addressed to deliver ‘Gigabit Britain’

Issues to be addressed in order to deliver ‘Gigabit Britain’

4. Galvanising demand

Galvanising demand for gigabit services and avoiding a return to a ‘boom and bust’ era for UK telcos, will require several urgent actions to resolve critical barriers to user adoption.

  • Build better gigabit awareness

Providing greater clarity around service availability and quality is critical. Industry and regulators must work together to standardise fibre terminology and remove confusion for customers. 

  • Create better value propositions

Differentiated value propositions are vital to stimulating gigabit broadband upgrade intentions. Articulating what gigabit broadband can provide, such as greater reliability not just higher speeds, is essential.

  • Ensure switching is simpler

Historically poor experiences of switching providers and upgrading packages have created significant apathy in the market. Frictionless interactions between customers and service providers are critical to simplify the process of switching providers and upgrading packages.

  • Enable alternative paths for customers to upgrade

Alternative routes are needed to serve demanding customers in remote areas. Community-led business models represent a new way of serving customers with shared infrastructure needs. Yet more education is required in order to avoid complexity. 

5. Supercharging supply

Supercharging supply to avoid a widening of the UK’s ‘digital divide’ will require immediate and sustained action from the Government, regulators and service providers alike.

  • Make planning processes gigabit-ready

Legal access agreements add to the time and cost of infrastructure installations. Simpler arrangements and better information flows across the value chain can help shorten approval times and reduce variability.

Planning success for 5G deployments in some council districts can vary from anything between over 95% to less than 50%.

  • Ensure access to the right labour in the right locations at the right time

Coordinating a national labour and training response to enable agile access to skilled labour is essential. Government and service providers should collaborate to identify the labour requirements for gigabit rollout and use this knowledge to develop joint training facilities.

The lead time for identifying and training the skilled labour required to deliver FTTP civil works is far greater than the horizon for obtaining funding.

  • Create more agile wholesale relationships in the gigabit value chain 

Regulators and service providers should explore a single enterprise wholesale platform to simplify multi-operator agreements. This can help expand retailer coverage nationwide to ensure effective competition in locations where customer choice is historically limited.

Ofcom’s recent approach has been rightly focused on promoting competition and enabling new alternative networks. Incentivising collaboration between providers is now a must.

  • Improve network deployment systems, tools, data and processes

More efficient network deployments are critical to maximising return on investment while meeting coverage targets on time. Service providers should use analytics tools to simplify deployment frameworks and ensure greater harmonisation of each other’s data sets.

What does good look like?

When it comes to galvanizing demand, the Government, regulators and operators should act in unison to empower customers. This means combating customer apathy and inertia by demystifying what gigabit broadband can do and by making the switching process as painless as possible. 

Supercharging supply will require the Government, regulators and service providers to take collaborative action across all areas of the telco value chain to ensure a sustainable and efficient gigabit-capable deployment and meet the ambitions of ‘Gigabit Britain’.

There are practical challenges to address in terms of the speed of decision-making and shared quality of information. Yet ultimately a shift in mindset is essential. The importance of bridging the digital divide should be top of mind for all industry actors. By appreciating the transformational promise of new infrastructure, all entities can work together better to create positive outcomes.

Over the coming months and years, supporting the UK’s ambition to close the digital divide and ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 pandemic will be one of the most critical tasks facing the Government and businesses. Gigabit connectivity will play a leading role in this recovery.

For more information, please refer to the detailed report. (https://assets.ey.com/content/dam/ey-sites/ey-com/en_uk/topics/tmt/ey-reset-or-level-up-how-can-gigabit-britain-deliver-for-all.pdf)

Summary

Over the coming months and years, supporting the UK’s ambition to close the digital divide and ‘build back better’ from COVID-19 will be one of the most critical tasks facing Government and businesses. Gigabit connectivity will play a leading role in this recovery. Now is the time for everyone to come together to ensure that Gigabit Britain delivers for all.