UK needs a digital infrastructure for 2030 and beyond, not 2020

Coverage of Ofcom’s latest annual report on the state of communications in the UK shows that much of the so-called establishment in the country still look at technology with wide-eyed wonder: “Ooh, pretty; clever; shiny!”

National newspaper headlines proclaiming that children understand more about technology than their parents were probably written by the same people who, as children themselves, were showing their parents how to program the VCR 20 years ago. It was ever thus.

At a government level, politicians are only starting to realise they can look good by being associated with tech – hence George Osborne turning up to launch a new fintech programme last week, and David Cameron ever desperate to associate himself with tech startups (even if much of his promised cash doesn’t actually get spent).

Meanwhile, as the establishment gazes in rapture, the rest of us are just getting on with being digital. We’re on the web more than ever, using mobiles, connecting to Wi-Fi, upgrading to superfast broadband, watching Netflix, and quite naturally integrating all this great technology into our everyday life and work.

There can no longer be any question of whether people are embracing technology – it is self-evident they are, and that given new tools and faster speeds, we will all continue to do so. There is no need to debate if or when we will need 5G mobile and 100Mbps (or more) broadband – it is obvious that we will, and sooner rather than later.

The government also quietly announced this week a consultation on a national communications infrastructure strategy, which is pondering just these sorts of questions and what public support will be needed to make it happen. It’s an absolutely critical process, but it needs to be much higher profile and more ambitious.

The key infrastructure questions for the UK in 2030 or 2040 are not to do with airports, roads or railways – they are to do with communications and technology. It’s no good looking at what we need in 2020 because we need to be looking much further ahead than that – not guessing what technologies will have emerged in 20 years’ time, but enabling an environment that allows them to emerge and be rapidly adopted.

One of the biggest risks to the UK’s digital economy is that the digital masses are way ahead of the establishment policymakers. Today’s 4G and broadband “notspots” are tomorrow’s economic problems.

Without prompt, ambitious, long-term digital thinking at the highest levels of commerce and politics, there is a real danger that by 2020 our national infrastructure will become even more a source of technical frustration than it already is.