Time to move Britain into the digital fast lane

When I first stood as a parliamentary candidate, over two decades ago, e-mail had barely been invented, our daily briefings arrived by fax, and dial-up telephone connections were painfully slow.

Today, in the age of smartphones, 95 per cent of the population has access to superfast broadband. But what would have been considered lightning connection speeds a few years ago are not good enough today.

Data consumption is rising by about 40 per cent a year, and connections are being used to upload data more as well as download it. New technologies will require far better connectivity. We are reaching the limit of what copper telephone wires can cope with. 

Rural areas like the South Downs were already left behind. My constituency is in the lowest third of areas in the UK in terms of average download speed and availability of superfast broadband.

I’ve held two local broadband summits to encourage better connection, and from March next year a new Universal Service Obligation for broadband will provide a legal right to a decent and affordable broadband connection.

Britain can’t stay in the slow lane. Only 7 per cent of the population has access to full-fibre networks. A new digital infrastructure is needed, with fibre to the premises and a new 5G mobile network.

Boris Johnson has promised universal fibre to the premises within a five-year time-scale. That’s a massive acceleration of what is currently planned, and will mean significant public spending to ensure that rural areas are included. 

The Government has already invested £650 million for fibre rollout in the three years to 2021, prioritising rural areas, and this week it launched proposals to reform planning processes in England to speed up the rollout of 5G and extend mobile coverage in rural areas.  

5G will connect mobile devices at speeds we’ve never seen before.  It will be possible to download an HD video to a phone ten times more quickly than using 4G.

But in parts of my constituency, you are lucky to get a mobile signal at all, let alone 4G. Allowing mobile companies to share their networks could improve coverage and minimise the need to build more masts.

To capitalise on the tech revolution, generating jobs and wealth, we need need 21st Century digital infrastructure. It’s time to move Britain into the digital fast lane - including rural areas.