UK needs to match - or better - Europe's broadband and mobile ambitions

A majority of the UK may have decided through the Brexit referendum that we officially don’t like the European Union, but as we work out what leaving it means, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for our digital economy to keep hold of a few European goals.

The European Commission this week set out plans for a “gigabit society” – laying down objectives for every EU household to have 100Mbps broadband, 5G mobile networks in at least one city in every EU state by 2020, and 1Gbps connectivity for schools, business and the public sector by 2025.

The plans are part of the proposed Digital Single Market, a policy where, ironically, the UK has been one of the main champions.

While Europe was setting out its ambitions, MPs at Westminster were debating the Digital Economy Bill, discussing – among other things – a universal service obligation for broadband that would guarantee a whopping 10Mbps to every household by 2020.

“I have been clear that we will not stop or cease until we get the right result,” said the new culture secretary Karen Bradley, on the vexed issue of BT’s relationship with its Openreach subsidiary.Ofcom has made some recommendations. We are looking carefully at them, and Ofcom is consulting on them.”

So we’ll do some more talking, and we’ll keep on not stopping and eventually we’ll get a result. And then we’ll probably debate some more whether it was the right result or not.

The UK government has shouted loudly that it believes we have the best broadband among leading European economies – a somewhat questionable claim – but more importantly do we still have the same ambition as Europe for where our telecoms infrastructure will be in 2020 and beyond?

Mobile operator O2 Telefónica’s CTO Brendan O’Reilly recently warned that the UK’s mobile networking infrastructure needs a radical overhaul to be ready for 5G.

“If the number of cars on Britain’s roads was doubling every year, we would be talking in terms of a crisis,” he told Computer Weekly. “We need to start treating digital infrastructure similarly.”

If the UK tech sector was given the choice, it would almost certainly opt in to the Digital Single Market and support the sort of ambitions laid out by the Commission. The obvious danger is that the wider distraction of Brexit dilutes focus on developing our digital economy. Theresa May has promised a new industrial strategy for the UK – but it’s time we had an ambitious, fully funded, long-term plan to create the best telecoms infrastructure in Europe before we get left behind.