Advisory group champions 4G and Wi-Fi in high street rescue plans

The Digital High Street Advisory Board has set out its strategy to ensure town centres remain competitive in the digital age

The Digital High Street Advisory Board has said a connectivity overhaul is needed in UK town centres in the next five years to help local businesses counter the threat posed by online retailers.

As part of this, the board would like to see 98% of town centres have access to 4G mobile connectivity and broadband speeds in excess of 24Mbps.

The advisory body also wants a set of Wi-Fi standards introduced that would make it easier for consumers to remain connected to the web as they move between town centre venues and providers.

This is just one of four digital initiatives the board has proposed, as it seeks to breathe new life into the nation’s ailing high streets between now and 2020.

As well as the roll-out of mobile, broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity targets, the group has also proposed the creation of a centralised High Street Digital Lab.

The lab will be used to provide 1,200 towns in the UK with access to tech skills training and digital capabilities, which businesses operating in these areas will be encouraged to use.

The board also wants to see training programmes introduced to ensure local residents, small businesses and charities have a good basic grounding in digital skills by 2020.

Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, chair of digital inclusion charity Go ON UK, said without these types of skills at their disposal, many high street-based organisations could be losing customers.

“They could be missing out on a range of benefits, such as taking payments or donations online, or having access to a wider range of services and suppliers," she said.

“[Tackling this] represents huge value both socially and economically for the UK.”

High street health monitoring

To ensure town centres keep pace with the changing demands of residents, in terms of the services they use and how they access them, the board has proposed the introduction of a High Street Digital Health Index.

This will be used to measure the digital health of a town’s high street by keeping tabs on local skill levels, infrastructure investments and levels of digital engagement with residents.

The proposals are outlined in the Digital High Street 2020 Report, which seeks to make the UK’s towns and high streets more appealing to visitors through the use of technology, while helping the smalls firms that operate there tap into the opportunities the digital economy can provide.

Read more about digital high streets

The board itself was set up in April 2014 to support the work of the Future High Street Forum, a government advisory group tasked with developing policies to help town centres adapt to changes in the way local residents use them – particularly in light of the threat posed by online shops and out-of-town retail parks.

Digital High Street Advisory Board chairman and chief executive of the Home Retail Group John Walden said the report’s proposals should help small and medium-sized businesses keep pace with the growing demands of digitally savvy consumers.

“The digital revolution is arguably the most disruptive factor affecting our communities, but its effects are not often considered central to high street revitalisation," he said.

“Many members of UK town centres are struggling to keep up with consumers in terms of their digital capabilities, and given the pace of digital growth many towns lack sufficient infrastructure and basic digital skills.

“I believe that the business-orientated board has provided recommendations that, taken together, can restore our high streets to vibrancy in a digital future, into 2020 and beyond.”

The proposals have won the backing of search giant Google, whose technologies have conspired to make it easier than ever for consumers to shop around online in pursuit of better deals on products.

According to Google UK director Peter Fitzgerald, the vast majority of UK shoppers research online before they buy from a store. 

"This means that every business is a digital business because every consumer is a digital consumer,” he said.

“We hope this report will be a first step towards improving digital access and expertise amoung small businesses and help them grow faster and reach more customers.”

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