The UK must improve broadband services and digital skills if it is to prosper outside of the European Union, a senior Government figure has said.
While Britain has made great strides in giving households and businesses superfast connections to the internet, “it’s way too early to wave a big banner saying ‘mission accomplished'”, said Matthew Gould, Director General of Digital and Media at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
Access to the internet is as an essential part of modern life and should be regarded on the same level as household utilities, Gould told Microsoft’s Transform conference recently. However, some people in the UK are still struggling to complete even basic tasks online.
“As we leave the EU, our future prosperity depends on us being connected, cyber secure, innovation friendly and digitally skilled. This is a fantastically important mission,” Gould said as he addressed the audience of business leaders and journalists in London.
“If we can’t connect, then nothing else is going to happen. We have made considerable progress; 90% of the premises in the UK can receive superfast broadband, and by the end of next year we’re going to get that up to 95%. They will get speeds of 24meg [megabits per second] or more.
“The Prime Minister [has] said that it’s not OK that in rural premises you can’t get fast internet, it’s not OK that businesses can’t get access to the speeds they need. We’ve got a big job to do.
“Connectivity is a utility, you can’t be a meaningful part of the modern economy if you don’t have the connectivity you need. We have to treat it as a utility. With the Digital Economy Bill that’s going through Parliament, we are including a provision that we are calling the Universal Service Obligation, which will allow us to ensure that everyone in the country should have a right to a minimum broadband speed – 10meg. Which should be fast enough for most families to do what they need to do.”
According to a study earlier this year by Akamai, a content delivery network, the UK receives an average of 11.6 megabits per second, compared with 14.1 in Norway, 15.3 in the Netherlands and 15.8 in Sweden.
Microsoft has conducted tests involving TV White Spaces technology to see how the wireless technology could extend Wi-Fi and powerful data connections to more people in remote and unconnected regions.
Gould said that the Government, which has made internet connectivity a key topic in recent weeks, will push internet companies to provide better services in order for the country to remain competitive with other European nations.
“The speed at which you could connect five years ago would not be acceptable now, and what people see as OK now won’t be OK in five years’ time. So we’ve got to move with people’s requirements, and that’s not just speed, it’s latency and quality of service – all the things that make a decent connection. We are going to have to ensure the market is going to have to deliver ever better, faster connectivity. That means moving to giga-fast speeds of reliability that fibre to the premise brings. The market has not been as fast to this as it might have been.”
However, the UK also needs people with the right digital skills in order to make the most of this improvement in connectivity.
Matthew Gould, Director General of Digital and Media at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport
Gould said it was “weird” and “a total mystery” that employment rates for computer graduates are so poor, while it was “crazy” that women make up less than 20% of the digital workforce.
“Then there is the biggest challenge of all: the digital divide. We are in danger of having a society in which you have digital haves and digital have-nots,” Gould added. “A fifth of adults in the UK lack very basic digital skills, one in 10 adults say they don’t use the internet. That means there are millions of people in the UK who aren’t able to be part of this exciting digital economy that we’re creating.”
To combat this, the Government has introduced a new computing curriculum, and is “putting digital skills in the same category as literacy and numeracy”, Gould said.
Satya Nadella speaks at Microsoft’s Transform event in London
“Everyone in the country has a right to get digital skills, [and it’s] a right we are going to enshrine in law. Everyone, no matter what stage of their career, will have the ability to get the training they need so they can be participants in the digital economy. But the Government can’t do this on its own. We are very lucky to have partners like Microsoft, which has trained 10,000 apprentices through its programme.”
While cutting-edge digital skills can be used to benefit the country, they can also be used by cyber terrorists to target the UK and its interests, Gould said. The “scale of the threat is growing” and it’s “troubling” that it’s now “much cheaper and easier to attack than defend”.
The creation of the National Cyber Security Centre, which will contain experts focused on security issues in a range of areas, was an important step in making the UK “the safest place in the world to do business online”.
“We are going to defend cyberspace more actively than ever before,” he stated.
Transform was aimed at helping businesses change how they work to become digital first and achieve more. The sold-out event heard from many speakers, including Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, who hailed cloud computing as a powerful tool that will help people transform the world.
“We are not building an AI-first world, we are building a people-first world with AI everywhere,” he told the digital-focused event in Canary Wharf. “Ultimately, technology is in the hands of humanity. It is up to us to imagine the future and shape it using technology.”