INCA calls for added investment in apprenticeships and skills to hit government broadband target

The Independent Networks Cooperative Association welcomes UK government plans to increase investment in workplace training and apprenticeships to address the growing skills shortage in the sector

While it welcomed the government’s plans to increase investment in workplace training and apprenticeships, the UK’s co-operative trade association for next-generation broadband services has warned that the future of UK broadband depends on getting the right training in place to develop skilled engineers.

Furthermore, the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) believes the UK government’s plans may not be enough for the telecoms sector if the Prime Minister wants to deliver on his plan to roll out superfast broadband throughout the UK in the next five years.

It is two years ago this month that the government published the findings of the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, which set out the ambition to see 15 million premises connected to full fibre by 2025, with coverage across all parts of the country by 2033.

The UK’s gigabit-capable broadband plan was first announced in the Queen’s Speech on 19 December 2019, buttressed by the 2020 Budget statement confirming the government’s commitment to invest a total of £5bn to roll out full-fibre broadband across the country. Since then, the subject has been a hot political issue in the UK, and before the coronavirus brought expansion to a halt – mainly because of the lack of engineers able to enter customers’ homes – network deployment was being carried out apace.

As well as levelling up broadband provision for UK citizens – most of whom are now working from home – a nationwide fibre-to-the-home network has the potential to provide a huge economic boost to the UK. Research released by Huawei in April 2020 calculated that delivering “Gigabit Britain” could add more than £50bn gross value to the economy in five years, growing to £68.8bn in 2030.

Research from UK broadband provision firm Openreach noted that the full-fibre network would allow thousands more people to work remotely, unlocking smarter ways of working, better public services and greater opportunities for the next generation of home-grown businesses. Openreach-commissioned research from October 2019, undertaken by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, calculated a potential productivity benefit of £59bn to the UK by 2025, enabling 400,000 more people to work from home.

Aiming to address the skills issue, former altnet turned network major CityFibre announced in June 2020 a three-year recruitment and training programme to provide up to 10,000 people with jobs upgrading its digital infrastructure to be fit for purpose. The jobs will be created within CityFibre’s pool of network construction partners to make good on the promise of delivering the up to £4bn roll-out of full fibre infrastructure to more than 100 towns and cities.

Yet according to INCA, urgent investment in training and apprenticeships will be needed to boost the number of skilled engineers capable of carrying out the work required to meet the targets set.

“We are pleased that the Chancellor has recognised the need to help provide young people with the basic skills to secure full-time work,” said INCA CEO Malcolm Corbett. “Now we need the same commitment made to developing a new generation of engineering talent or we risk falling short of the 2025 gigabit broadband target by some way.”

INCA believes that skills training should be accepted as being as important as higher education and wants the government to do more to direct resources to industry sectors in most need. The organisation is currently undertaking a consultation exercise to identify its members’ training needs and intends to provide the results to the government soon.

“The independent sector is fully committed and ready to help the government achieve its targets for broadband coverage in the UK, but it must also listen to the genuine concerns of those on the frontline,” Corbett added.

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