Exploring the importance of digital connectivity for society and how we are preparing for the future, was the goal of Location North Westlast conference.
Organized in association with 4th utility, ITS Technology Group and LCR connectionand hosted by Location North West, the event took place at the Innside Hotel in Liverpool. The event was chaired by Dan Whelan, Senior Reporter at Location North West.
Here is an overview of the main discussion topics.
Scroll down to see photos from the event
What is digital connectivity and why is it important?
Digital connectivity means having a permanent Internet connection, whether fixed or mobile.
Tony Hughes, chief executive of internet service provider 4th Utility, highlighted the inequality in society with online access. He said a million children were left out during the lockdown when learning became distant. They are not alone, with 1.5 million households having constant internet problems, especially those who are not comfortable with new technologies, such as the elderly and low-income families.
“The [digital] market is littered with people who don’t care about their customers,” Hughes explained.
Hughes believes super-fast broadband should be a right, not a luxury, calling it a “fourth public service”. He believes this is particularly prevalent in light of the pandemic which forces remote working, with good internet meaning people could work more effectively from home or in a hybrid environment, giving a big boost to the economy thanks to an industry that could grow by £59bn by 2023.
The UK lags behind the rest of the world, according to Hughes, who said the UK is 43rd in the world for digital connectivity. For Hughes, full digital connectivity across the country is crucial, and the best way to ensure that happens is to provide people locally and nationally.
Getting fiber across the UK will be tricky, with less than a quarter of homes currently having it, according to Hughes.
“Think of a six-lane highway,” he said. “It’s usually smooth, but if you put 100,000 cars on it, you’re going to get traffic [congestion].”
To combat this, he pointed out that it would be helpful to have better internet on public transport so that commuters can work while on their journey.
Customer Tom LoganCabinet Member for Education and Skills at Liverpool City Council, advocated for changing the way we teach technology to students.
He suggested that enshrining technology skills, such as coding, in the national curriculum would be another popular way to improve digital inclusion – an initiative Argentina and Estonia have already taken.
“We’re at the point now where if you can code in a range of languages, you can get a high-paying job, like being able to read and write 150 years ago,” Logan said.
How Councils Get Involved
The Liverpool City Region Combined Authority is making digital connectivity a priority. The combined authority is one of the partners behind LCR Connect, a gigabit-capable, full-featured fiber network covering the Liverpool city area.
Lorna Rogersdeputy director of program delivery to the mayor at the combined authority, explained how the authority is improving the future of connectivity.
“LCR Connect is investing in our own digital infrastructure across the city region,” she said. “We are creating our own rescue network, 212 km, making it sustainable, and we are working in partnership with ITS and [construction partner].”
She said the venture was part of the Mayor of Liverpool Metro’s plan to play a leading role in equalizing connectivity across the country, “taking the future into our own hands”.
In St Helens, the council has developed a digital strategy to improve people’s confidence with technology.
“We have these centers of locality where people without confidence in technology arrive without knowing it but leave able to do something,” said Ste Sharplesdeputy director of people and digital at St Helens Council.
A real upgrade is needed
Government upgrade plans fall short of cities’ needs for digital inclusiveness.
Local councils cannot provide permanent free connectivity because of the impact it would have on large businesses, Liverpool’s Cllr Logan has argued.
He mentioned the Liverpool City Council scheme which provides families with a £2million share of internet hardware and servers, but only for 12 months because Whitehall no longer gave them the finances.
“We have 1,200 families registered right now,” he said. “But what do they do after 12 months? How does a family prove that they cannot afford to connect to the Internet? It is about improving health and social care and reducing digital poverty.
Logan pointed out that some people are excluded from areas of society they could access before the pandemic, with many services having moved online.
Stephen Youngchief executive of Halton Council, was concerned about the lack of big business coming to the Liverpool area and other parts of the city.
“Modern companies won’t come if they can’t guarantee full connectivity,” Young said. “We will have to continue to develop our work in an inclusive way to ensure that we follow the market, having this whole supply chain to give jobs to our local community.
Connectivity changes the needs of society
The needs of society are constantly changing, and nothing has demonstrated this better than the increase in the need for good connectivity in all areas of our lives.
The driving force behind this is that consumer expectations have changed to reflect the development of the digital world, according to Lee RevellHead of Innovation and Architecture at Halton Housing.
The main findings of the research conducted by Halton Housing were that digital skills, connectivity and accessibility are among the most important factors in today’s society. Providing services online is one way to do this.
“It allows us to help more people who need it and to make better use of our resources because we can reduce customer service costs and use that money in other areas,” he explained.
The role of connectivity in returning to the office
Hybrid working can pose challenges when it comes to workplace meetings if digital connections are poor.
“If the internet isn’t great, it causes problems for the meeting, so full connectivity is best,” said Andrew Byrnedirector at CBRE real estate advisor.
“To be in person is to create different collaborations,” he continued. “You don’t get that social connection from home, but being home and being able to get the files is key. There is a mix and it is important to get it right.
Remote roles can also be cause for concern.
“People will become excluded if they don’t have this [in-person] connection,” said Alex Harrisonpartner at Falconer Chester Hall.
“You lose that feeling of knowing and connecting with your colleagues, creating an office space where people want to go and finding that balance,” she said.
Harrison also noted that “there is a generational gap” and that there needs to be support for those who are not as confident with technology.
A better connection can boost business and attract investment
There is a financial gain in improving digital connectivity, according to David Hudsonresponsible for partnerships and alliances with the network provider ITS.
“Addressing potential investments through schools or business development in the area is critical,” Hudson said. “There has been a snowball of inquiries from companies wanting to invest or stay in Liverpool because of connectivity.”
Harrison echoed Hudson’s point, adding that research showed that 94% of businesses said digital connectivity was crucial to their operation.
It was feared that if new buildings or renovations do not happen soon, Liverpool will catch up with other major cities.
The government is ditching its copper network in favor of a faster, more durable full-fiber version.
It’s “critical” according to Hudson.
“It’s important to have a local network and reduce that ESG footprint,” he said.
The lifetime of the full fiber network is at least 50 to 100 years, according to Hudson.
To make this all-fiber future possible, it’s important to know which buildings need upgrading and how to find out who is responsible for them.
Reevell of Halton Housing said: “We’re running out of time, but improved digital connectivity now allows us to identify buildings that need support, and data has been hugely important in putting governance in place. data to determine who is responsible.
Concerns about the cost of fiber and the impact on companies trying to maintain their ESG were dismissed by Byrne.
“The cost of digging and installing the fiber is too expensive and there is a premium, but once people are in the building and [it is in] major use, it becomes irrelevant,” Byrne said.
“Connectivity will bring better paying jobs and build trust.”
The following Location North West the event is Chester Development Update, tomorrow at Chester Racecourse. Tickets for the in-person event are currently available.
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