The digital economy and the Autumn Statement: Good start, please do more

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement showed a welcome and necessary understanding of the need to look at the long-term future of the UK’s digital economy.

The £1bn investment in fibre to the premise (FTTP) broadband and 5G mobile infrastructure – along with £2bn for research and development and £400m to help tech startups go beyond the startup phase – represent the first time the Conservative-led governments of the past six years have looked beyond short-term, vote-winning policies when it comes to the technology sector.

As former digital minister Ed Vaizey will be quick to point out, the government has spent money on the digital economy before – helping to fund fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) broadband and giving marketing support to Tech City, for example. But those initiatives were essentially short-term, filling a gap that the market was failing to fulfil.

Computer Weekly and others have long called for a minimum 10-year perspective on the UK’s digital infrastructure. Telecoms watchdog Ofcom set that process in motion when its communications market review declared that supporting a full-fibre broadband network was its key regulatory priority for the next decade. The latest government policy supports that intent. Full marks are deserved for making full fibre the focus.

Fibre broadband to the home is perhaps the single most important digital investment the UK can make over the next 10 years.

But understandably, there are still many people who will say, we don’t even have decent broadband or mobile signals at home now – can’t we sort that out first?

They are right, of course. The last thing we want is a two-tier digital Britain. But now is the time to invest properly in FTTP. As the adoption of broadband over the past 15 years has shown, if you build it, they will come. You might not need gigabit speeds for the next two or three years, but you can be sure you will before much longer.

The details of how the new broadband cash will be spent are still unclear, but the government has signalled that priority will go to smaller providers – the so-called altnets – who tend to operate in the areas that BT has decided are not “economically viable”.

The best solution, therefore, if the government also wants to court vote-winning popularity , would be to target that investment at a rural leapfrog strategy – give full fibre first to the people without any fibre today.