As well as getting the basics right in the short-term when it comes to digital and transport infrastructure, the Government should be looking at technologies with transformative potential such as hyperloop, personal air vehicles and reusable spacecraft, suggests a new report from the Institute of Directors.
Some urgent action is needed, the IoD argues, because the UK is failing to take advantage of existing technology that could improve its connectivity in transport and internet access, which lag behind rivals in Western Europe while the population is expected to grow another 7 million by 2041.
In the paper, The future of connected business, the IoD puts forward proposals on key infrastructure priorities:
- Targeting universal 5G coverage by 2026. The UK must reverse its trend of being behind the times on data coverage. When auctioning off 5G capacity, the focus should be less on potential Government revenue and more emphasis on coverage, new entrants on the long-term benefits 5G could bring the UK economy, such as enabling the UK to lead the way in the emerging autonomous vehicles sector.
- Upgrading broadband connections. Firms would benefit greatly from broader and faster broadband availability, with only 3% of premises currently using fibre-optic connections, compared with 60% in Spain. To rectify this, an ambitious copper switch-off date of 2025 should be set, the UK Full Fibre Network Fund’s remit should expand to include investing in new and existing physical infrastructure, and third party charges for using Openreach ducts and poles must be removed.
- Digitising railway signalling across the country. Under current Network Rail plans, signal boxes will not be fully digital until 2040 – far too late. The success of the Victoria tube line highlights the greater efficiency and reduced running cost that this development could bring.
- Improving data capture on roads. While the Department for Transport collects some data at present, it could vastly increase this to enable smarter investment. The Government should also urge Ordnance Survey, as well as companies such as Google and Apple, to publish more of the data they collect for use by local authorities and other organisations.
In the longer term, the report argues that the Government must not shy away from projects based on emerging technologies. In particular, the proposed Northern Powerhouse rail network could incorporate Hyperloop or Maglev technology, providing genuinely game-changing transport connections for the region’s population.
Dan Lewis, author of the report and Senior Advisor on Infrastructure Policy at the Institute of Directors, said:
“While in many respects the UK boasts a competitive environment for businesses, its infrastructure is simply not up to scratch. We lag behind our rivals in Europe and across the world in areas such as broadband speed and road transport, and holding firms back from expanding.
“In many cases the technology we need is already out there, we just need to put it into practice, fast. Projects like digitising railway signalling and rolling out fibre optic cable are relatively straightforward, and will provide a significant boost to businesses’ potential. But the Government’s timescales are far too slow, and the UK risks falling further behind in its capabilities.
“In the longer term, we should not be afraid of new ideas, especially those with a track record of success in other areas of the world. Readying the country’s infrastructure for the 21st century is a formidable challenge, and will require us to make the most of technological advances.”