29th January 2013
It's what you do with it that counts
By Clive Richardson, Go ON UK Director of Public Affairs and Research
The Government yesterday set out plans for the second phase of its high speed rail link, HS2, connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. At a cost of £33bn, this will release space on overcrowded lines and shorten journey times, improving connectivity within the UK - once the line is complete in 2033.
Andrew McGuinness, writing in the Times, calls instead for greater investment in Britain's digital infrastructure. Faster and more reliable internet access could let entrepreneurs do business across the country without ever having to travel. This is entirely sensible – broadband in the UK, while good, is neither as widespread or as fast as in other developed economies: over three quarters of adults have access to some form of broadband connection, and average speeds are now 9.0Mbit/s.
But we do have a tremendously strong internet economy. The internet accounts for over 8% of UK GDP – a greater proportion than any other G20 country. We do more online shopping than any other European country. And over a quarter of UK internet users watch TV online every week – the highest proportion internationally.
However, we’re not making full use of our existing infrastructure, and not every consumer in the UK is an enthusiastic early adopter. Over a third of British small and medium businesses don’t even have a website – never mind exploiting video conferencing and cloud computing. A fifth don’t think the internet is important to their organisation.
Go ON UK estimate that 16 million people lack Basic Online Skills – that is, they are not able to find information, send and receive email, complete online applications, and understand basic privacy settings.
Reliable infrastructure and high-quality services are vital components of the UK’s digital economy. But without people and businesses knowing what the internet can do for them, and having the capability to use digital tools confidently, we won’t see the full benefits of our current network – never mind the next generation.