Michael Leckie/Virgin Media

National Infrastructure Commission pinpoints strategic gaps in UK infrastructure planning 

UK infrastructure assessment stresses it remains critical for health of country that gigabit broadband is effectively rolled out to rural areas and towns to ensure genuinely universal provision

The UK has made significant progress on its gigabit broadband roll-out and there is now wide reach of 4G mobile connectivity, but there is further to go to avoid any places being left behind, a baseline report from the National Infrastructure Commission has warned.

The report covers an assessment of long-term needs in the transport, energy, water and wastewater, flood resilience, digital, and waste sectors, as well as recommendations to meet them, including the right policy. The assessments are guided by the commission’s objectives to support sustainable growth across all regions of the UK, improve competitiveness and quality of life, and the commission’s new objective to support climate resilience and the transition to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The last assessment was undertaken in 2018, and the new one will set out costed policy recommendations to government to ensure the UK is ready for future challenges and opportunities, looking ahead over the next 10-30 years. It will explicitly consider the affordability of the required investment and how costs and savings will be spread across different groups in society and between consumers and taxpayers.

The report paints a mixed picture of UK infrastructure and reveals the topics that will sit at the heart of its next major assessment of the UK’s long-term infrastructure priorities, to be published in 2023, following analysis of the current performance of key sectors.

The priorities will include identifying the infrastructure needed for hydrogen and carbon capture and storage to decarbonise parts of the economy, improving recycling rates, and the long-term investment needs for surface transport in and between cities and towns.

In the context of communications infrastructure, the report notes that networks are generally performing well in some areas, with significant work necessary in others to meet the challenges posed by climate change, environmental decline and behaviour change. It also said the government has set out a clear vision to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to at least 85% of UK premises by 2025, and that in late 2021 this was well underway, reaching over 50% of premises.

It added that digital connectivity plays an increasingly important role in society and the economy, by increasing the economic reach of local businesses, enabling new ways of working more productively, and enhancing connectivity to support quality of life.

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The commission stressed that while variations between regions existed, it remained critical that gigabit broadband is effectively rolled out to rural areas and towns to ensure genuinely universal provision. Moreover, it observed that achieving nationwide gigabit broadband coverage was a major civil engineering challenge and would require a significant level of private investment.

The commission regarded the government’s target as achievable as long as the policy and regulatory environment remained pro-investment and network operators deliver against the plans they have set out. It said it would monitor progress with the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband against the government’s targets.

Commenting on the baseline report’s foreword, chair John Armitt said the strategic themes identified by the commission posed urgent and wide-ranging questions. “Each draw broad political and public support for their end goal,” he said. “Each, however, offer few quick wins or cheap fixes. We will now embark on this work – informed by input and insight from industry, political leaders, representative bodies, and other organisations across the country and the public – and formulate policy recommendations to put forward to government.”

Yet despite being generally warmly received, the report did attract some concerns regarding priorities. David Hennell, business development director at mobile-based broadband solutions provider National Broadband, urged both the commission and government to reconsider their current strategy and focus on fibre broadband with regard to the nation’s digital infrastructure.

“Any investment to improve the nation’s connectivity and digital infrastructure is welcome, and the National Infrastructure Commission is correct in noting and commending such progress, as well as highlighting the significant efficiency and economic benefits delivered by ensuring that all UK properties have a fast and robust broadband connection,” he said. “However, this continued ‘single-solution’ obsession with providing properties with full-fibre broadband fails to recognise and address the key issue at the heart of the digital divide in the UK.

“The current plan of action to provide 85% of properties with gigabit-capable full-fibre broadband sounds great, but it actually leaves out those in most need of help. Sadly, such a strategy will in large part provide further improvements for those who already have high-speed broadband, while leaving those with the poorest current connections behind.

“If this government is serious about bridging the broadband divide and genuinely levelling up the UK as rapidly as possible, it must broaden its perspective, move away from its current sole fixation on full-fibre and look to include 4G, and soon 5G, solutions as well,” said Hennell.

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