Internet connectivity has become an essential part of modern life and business. All parties’ manifestos promised major digital infrastructure upgrades to prepare for future data demands. Meanwhile, as of May 2019, 5% of UK properties did not have access to superfast broadband and 9% of UK land mass had no 4G mobile coverage.

How will the new Government support new nationwide digital infrastructure? What does this mean for the UK’s ‘digital divide’?

Do we need an infrastructure upgrade?

Superfast broadband usually means download speeds of at least 30 megabits per second.

23% of rural premises have no access to superfast broadband, compared to 2% of urban premises and 5% of premises overall. 59% of rural premises have no access to 4G, compared to 17% of urban premises and 23% of premises overall.

Superfast broadband is fast enough for most household uses today. Users can browse the web, conduct video calls and watch standard-quality TV online. But growing high-data demands by multiple users can push the limits of a superfast broadband connection. Higher speeds and data capacity are even more important for businesses.

Focus has moved to rolling-out ‘future proof’ digital infrastructure such as full-fibre broadband and 5G wireless networks. These technologies offer much faster ‘gigabit-capable’ speeds and high reliability to many users at one time.

Nationwide gigabit-capable infrastructure is predicted to bring economic and other societal benefits through enhanced productivity and innovation. Transformative new technologies, such as autonomous cars and wireless virtual reality, will need these advanced digital networks. While the size and scale of benefits is difficult to forecast, all parties accept that major upgrades are needed.

What is gigabit-capable infrastructure?

Gigabit broadband means any technology that can deliver speeds of at least 1 gigabit per second (1000 megabits per second). 1 gigabit per second allows a high-definition film to be downloaded in under 1 minute. Gigabit broadband usually means full-fibre technology but can also include the latest cable broadband and future 5G mobile networks.

Gigabit broadband usually means full-fibre technology but can also include the latest cable broadband and future 5G mobile networks.

Full-fibre broadband involves fibre optic cables connected directly to each premises. Fibre cables are more reliable than copper wires and allow much faster speeds. Full-fibre connections were available to 10% of UK properties in September 2019, a figure that is steadily growing.

5G is the next generation of wireless communications technology. It can deliver very fast speeds with very fast response times and can support many devices at one time. 5G will likely be used for wireless technologies beyond mobile networks. Potential applications include in healthcare, smart cities, manufacturing and agriculture. Mobile operators launched the first 5G networks in some UK cities in 2019.

How much will UK-wide gigabit infrastructure cost?

Theresa May’s Government estimated that nationwide full-fibre broadband would cost around £30 billion, and 5G would need a further £3–4 billion.

The Conservative Governments’ approach is that private companies would provide most of this cost. The Labour manifesto, in contrast, promised a nationwide public-funded full-fibre network.

Industry stakeholders are calling for further tax relief to lower their investment costs. They have also called for urgent policy reform to tackle ‘barriers’ they say are causing delays to roll-out. Barriers include obtaining planning permission and access to land to install infrastructure. Some changes in these areas will require new laws to be considered by the new Parliament.

Will rural areas be left behind?

Rural stakeholders are concerned that they will be left behind by the push for new infrastructure. Rural areas are challenging for private investment due to higher build costs and low population density.

All parties have promised that public funding will prioritise the hardest to reach rural areas first. Rural stakeholder groups welcome this approach but urge faster action. Parliament will play a role in scrutinising the new Government’s progress in providing for rural areas.

The digital divide: not just about speed

The digital divide is the gap between people in society that have full access to digital technology and those who do not.

Older people are more likely to be non-internet users, as are disabled people.

Full digital inclusion also requires digital skills and motivation to use technology. Estimates vary, but around 10% of UK adults were non-internet users in 2018. A Lloyds Bank survey in 2019 found that 19% of individuals lacked basic digital skills, such as using a web browser. The most common reason for people not going online is lack of interest.

In the UK, disparities in internet use exist based on age, location, socioeconomic status and whether a person has a disability. For example, more than half of people aged over 75 do not go online, and older people form the largest proportion of non-internet users.

What does it mean to be digitally excluded?

Internet access is now required to use many essential services, including online banking and some public services. Non-digital options are disappearing in some cases, for example through bank branch closures. Digitally-excluded individuals risk missing out on benefits, such as saving time and money through online shopping. Research suggests that a higher level of digital skills aligns with improved job prospects and earnings.

Charities are urging the next government to take an ambitious approach to harnessing the wide economic and social benefits of a 100% digitally included nation. There is limited evidence about effective policy approaches to address digital divides. Age charities argue that efforts targeting older people should be tailored to their personal needs and motivations for going online.

Further reading

Insights for the new Parliament

This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.