UK makes bold promises to advance digital infrastructure

An assessment by the UK National Infrastructure Commission highlights areas where investment should be prioritised to prevent shortcomings.

“The whole purpose of the UK’s first-ever National Infrastructure Assessment is to think beyond the technologies of today and to ensure we can make the most of future innovations,” explains Sir John Armitt CBE.

“It’s why it’s not just a one-off but something we will be repeating every five years to ensure we remain on the front foot.”

The assessment covers a range of infrastructure needs including connectivity, energy, transportation, and reducing environmental impact.

“Whether it’s electric or driverless cars, new energy sources, tackling the risk of climate change, or preparing for the newest and fastest broadband speeds, the issues we’ve been considering profoundly affect people’s everyday lives,” continues Armitt.

Building a digital society

Earlier this week, Telecoms reported the UK had slipped to 35th in the Global Broadband Speed Rankings. Embarrassingly, 25 other European countries are ahead of the UK on the list.

Part of the reason for this drop would be lack of investment from the brutal austerity cuts imposed by the Conservative government, while another would be the failure of regulatory bodies to set targets and measures which foster innovation and investment from private firms.

Commissioner Andy Green said:

“From businesses who need reliable high speed bandwidth to manage their global supply chains in real time, or families streaming the latest film releases via smart TVs, we are all looking for fast, reliable broadband connections – and so are our international competitors.

We can’t afford for any community to be cut off from these essential technologies and so alongside private companies, the Government must also play a role.”

The assessment recommends a ‘National Broadband Plan’ to make clear the government needs to take action to ensure rural areas, as well as our cities, can take full advantage of the digital revolution.

According to figures in the report, switching to full fibre would save up to £5bn in operating costs over a 30-year period while also offering speeds up to 1000Mbps. However, it will take anywhere between 10-20 years to deliver.

Earlier this year, the government declared it had reached its promise of providing ‘superfast’ broadband access to 95 percent of the UK. However, the same company which compiled the coverage data also warned the UK is likely to fall even further behind in speeds over the coming years.

The commissioners note how falling prices in renewable energy technologies are making them a more viable alternative to rapidly declining fossil fuel supplies. Battery prices have also fallen 80 percent since 2010.

In the report, the commission recommends at least 50 percent of electricity generation to come from renewable sources by 2030.

Professor David Fisk CB said:

“Nuclear power stations will not be coming onstream before the 2030s – so we need to continue encouraging the development of wind and solar energy sources to meet our legally binding climate change targets.

By investing now in building infrastructure, and finding the best low-carbon sources for heating our homes and businesses, costs will be kept down – helped by savings from the switch to low-carbon electric vehicles.”

On the subject of transport and switching to low-carbon electric vehicles, there’s a pressing need for a greater network of charging points to reduce consumers fear of running out of energy before reaching their destinations.

With this charging infrastructure in place, the commission hopes to target close to 100 percent electric sales of new cars and vans in 2030 – helping to reduce the 80 percent contribution to air pollution by today’s vehicles.

Professor Sir Tim Besley CBE said:

“With manufacturers investing billions in developing electric cars, over time these vehicles will become more affordable and attractive to drivers – we need to give them every reason to abandon the internal combustion engine and trust this new technology.

A nationwide network of charging points is essential to achieving this and if we do it right the UK could reap the benefits of quieter, greener cars, and a more efficiently-run and managed energy system keeping them on the road.”

The commissioners note the appetite from private companies to install charging points technologies – but they also stress the need for Whitehall, Town Halls, and others to help make that happen.

On the subject of connected car and driverless technologies, the report highlights how driving takes up around 140 hours per year on average – wasted time which could be spent on work or leisure.

Roads and roadside infrastructure will need to be adapted to support these new technologies. A few suggestions include; connecting traffic lights to cars to reduce waiting times, flexible curbs which change through the day, and separate lanes for different types of vehicle.

In order to fund the commissioners’ plans, significant investment will be needed from both the public and private sector.

Commissioner Julia Prescot said:

“The National Infrastructure Assessment gives the government the insight and evidence it needs to meet this country’s needs in the long-term – to ensure projects are delivered, we also need to build confidence that the funding and finance will be in place.

While Ministers have committed to investing in our infrastructure, we must also look to secure new and innovative ways of funding and financing projects both within the public sector but also from private investors.

The steps we’re recommending are designed with precisely this objective in mind, enabling us to make the improvements and innovations we want to over the coming decades.”

It’s hard to disagree with the commissioners’ assessment of what it’s going to take to ensure the UK has an infrastructure fit for the future and ready to take advantage of the opportunities presented by new technologies.

However, coming up with plans is the easy bit – securing investment, meeting targets, and ultimately delivering on projects is the difficult part. We’ve seen little cause for optimism in the ability to do so for quite some time.

A full copy of the 2018 National Infrastructure Assessment can be found here.

What are your thoughts on the infrastructure assessment? Let us know in the comments.

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