Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Connected Britain 2023: Digital Infrastructure Minister speech

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Good afternoon and thank you to Connected Britain for inviting me to speak and for convening an event that is more interesting and important than ever.

I’m delighted to be here in the Docklands today – there are few better places to celebrate the things which keep us connected.

Because for centuries, it was the Docklands around us that brought Britain to the world – and the world to Britain, bringing growth, prosperity and opportunity for millions.

Today, connectivity matters just as much – the economy of the future won’t be powered by sail or coal, boat or barge – it will be powered by digital infrastructure.

Because it is only with connectivity that we can deliver on our ambition to build the most innovative economy in the world.

Embedding innovation in our economy must deliver real benefits for each and every British person. For that very reason, this government is on a mission to ensure that communities and businesses up and down the country have the secure, reliable and high-quality connectivity they need.

That connectivity is, and will continue to be, an engine of economic growth – creating jobs, and delivering the kind of bold new discoveries which will put the UK right at the cutting edge of science and technology.

Our plan to make that mission a success is clear, comprehensive, and unapologetically ambitious.

First and foremost, we remain relentlessly focused on working with the telecoms industry to drive the deployment of fixed and wireless broadband, to deliver the connectivity which British people need today.

But even as we do that, we’re looking ahead to tomorrow, by investing in the technologies that will transform the telecoms industry and the global economy.

And finally, we’re ensuring at every stage that our telecoms networks are secure and resilient.

So I want to take today as an opportunity to talk through this 3-step plan for success, and what it means for you.

Extending fixed and wireless coverage

Driving the deployment of fixed and wireless broadband is a centrepiece of the government’s work.

We have set an ambitious goal to ensure future proof and resilient gigabit broadband to 85% of the UK by 2025 and to over 99% by 2030 and we continue to make progress towards meeting this ambition. Working in partnership with industry and Ofcom, our policies have helped us collectively increase gigabit broadband to 77% up from just 6% in 2018, largely driven by competition.

We remain firmly committed to wholesale competition in the broadband market being the best strategy to meet our strategic objectives.

And so we continue to establish an environment which encourages competition and investment by removing practical barriers to deployment and reducing regulatory barriers to investment and innovation where necessary.

The Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Act, passed last year, sets out a number of measures that will make a real difference in the pace at which apparatus can be installed, upgraded and shared.

A number of the provisions have already come into play and we are firmly committed to implementing all provisions in the Act before the end of 2024.

We are funding a further trial of a more flexible permitting system for street works in England, giving fixed line operators more freedom when installing fibre in the ground. Launching in early 2024, these new ‘flexi-permits’ could significantly accelerate broadband rollout.

Through the government’s Geospatial Commission, we are also working with asset owners, to build a digital map of the pipes and cables beneath our feet.

The National Underground Asset Register is revolutionising the way we install, maintain, operate and repair our buried infrastructure and will deliver at least £350 million per year of economic growth, whilst also improving worker safety.

The emerging service has been launched in parts of England with plans to extend it to the rest of England this autumn, and to Northern Ireland in spring. If you’re not yet taking part – I’d urge you to join others like CityFibre, Virgin Media O2, COLT, Gigaclear and Nynet by getting involved as soon as possible.

We continue to deliver on our mission to bring fast and reliable connectivity to hard-to-reach places across the UK. Under the £5 billion Project Gigabit, we already have 39 procurements and contracts underway, making over £2 billion of funding available to improve broadband connections for up to 1.1 million premises.

In addition, our voucher scheme has already benefited communities across the country; with the help of our partners, we recently passed a major milestone: 100,000 vouchers have now been used to fund gigabit broadband connections for people in rural places from the Scottish Highlands to the Jurassic Coast.

We are trialling satellite connectivity and other innovative technologies to provide faster and reliable connectivity to the most remote areas of the UK.

Earlier this year the government announced an £8 million fund to provide capital grants to further promote new satellite connectivity to the most remote 35,000 premises.

On the deployment of mobile connectivity – through the Shared Rural Network, the government and industry are jointly investing over £1 billion to increase 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK’s landmass by the end of the programme, up from 93% today and 91% when the SRN deal was signed back in March 2020.

We also want to ensure that all parts of the UK benefit from 5G. Basic non-standalone 5G has been made available to outside 85% of premises.

But this is only the start of the UK’s 5G future. Widespread adoption of 5G could see up to £159 billion in productivity benefits by 2035.

We recognise that the deployment of basic, non-standalone 5G, will not be enough to unlock these benefits.

Our Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, published in April this year, announced an ambition – backed by the industry – to deliver high-quality, standalone 5G to all populated areas by 2030.

But we recognise that operators will continue to face challenges when investing in 5G. Through the Strategy, we have set out how we will improve the investment climate for 5G by reducing costs, increasing revenues, and making sure that regulation is not a barrier to innovation.

To support this, we have asked Ofcom to review its approach to setting spectrum licence fees to ensure they continue to promote the efficient use of spectrum and support a strong investment environment. We are also working closely with Ofcom as it updates the net neutrality guidelines to provide clear and up to date guidance for industry.

We will also continue with our work through the Barrier Busting Task Force to tackle the barriers preventing the fast, efficient and cost-effective deployment of gigabit-capable and 5G networks.

Supporting rural communities and businesses to access high quality connectivity is a [personal] priority for both myself and the Secretary of State.

Our 10 point plan for rural connectivity restated our commitment to ensuring that rural economies benefit from the opportunities that come with better connectivity.

To support this plan, is the appointment of Simon Fell MP as Rural Connectivity Champion. I know Simon has already met many of you here today. He will report to DSIT and Defra Secretaries of State next year on how government can continue to support rural communities to access and adopt advanced wireless connectivity.

Earlier this year, we launched our 5G Innovation Regions programme, which will invest up to £40 million to help local and regional authorities realise the benefits of 5G and advanced wireless connectivity. Each 5G Innovation Region will develop a framework to stimulate the adoption of 5G-enabled technologies and services. I am looking forward to announcing the successful regions later in the autumn.

Accelerating 5G adoption will be key to unlocking additional growth and productivity gains.

I am pleased to say that today we are announcing the winners of our Smart Infrastructure Pilots Programme. The winning local authorities are Cambridgeshire County Council, Oxfordshire County Council, North Ayrshire Council, Westminster City Council Tees Valley Combined Authority, and the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames.

The 6 winning pilots authorities will share £1.3 million of funding to procure and test smart multi-purpose street columns for wireless coverage and other uses, such as electric vehicle charging and environmental monitoring.
– We are thoroughly looking forward to seeing how the successful local authorities can make a difference.

Looking ahead, we know that upgrades are a critical element of modernising our telecoms networks. We are working closely with Ofcom and the industry to ensure consumers and sectors are protected and prepared for the Public Switched Telephone Network switch off and the sunsetting of 2G and 3G mobile services.

Connectivity is essential for full participation in society and we know that the recent rise in the cost of living has been difficult for many households across the country.

I want to recognise the great work of the industry in ensuring that households, including low income families are able to get and stay online. There are now 27 providers of social tariffs and government continues to work in partnership with Ofcom and industry to support those who are struggling to pay.

Connectivity for the future

As well as delivering connectivity today we are also looking ahead to focus on the opportunities that telecoms will bring to the UK tomorrow.

The government has identified future telecoms as one of the 5 critical technologies that will underpin the transformation of modern British society and our economy.

The next generation of telecoms, including 6G, should see a huge leap in digital transformation. From the expansion of satellite communications to provide near universal coverage and reducing the rural connectivity divide – to the use of drones in networks to provide energy efficient and flexible deployment.

We will build our existing strengths in foundational research and early-stage innovation to ensure that new discoveries benefit the British public and put us at the heart of the global telecoms market, delivering our ambition to be a science and tech superpower.

Earlier this year, we announced our plans to initially invest up to £100 million to support innovators and ensure the UK is a pioneer in future telecoms and 6G research and development. We expect competitions to launch in early October and welcome the robust enthusiasm from the sector to-date! I’m excited to see the pioneering work the winners will be working on over the next few years.

We also continue to ensure the UK has a leading voice on the global stage and the opportunity to work closely with international partners to shape the rules and standards that govern global telecoms networks.

We are already delivering on our 6G strategy, most recently at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in June, by ensuring that national priorities such as coverage, sustainability, security and interoperability are recognised internationally as a minimum expectation for 6G.

And at the heart of all of this work to ensure advanced connectivity is the effective management of Spectrum which we set out in our Spectrum Statement earlier this year which sets out our plans to ensure that spectrum supports growth while protecting critical services and that we will also continue to advocate for the UK at key international fora, including this year’s World Radio Congress.

A key element of this work is to develop and enhance spectrum sharing in the UK. Ofcom’s 2019 spectrum sharing framework was a ground-breaking step, but industry let us know that more can be done to improve the framework and help us to get more out of this finite resource. We’re working closely with Ofcom on options for spectrum sandboxes and we’re looking forward to the introduction of automation across shared spectrum bands early next year.

Security and resilience

As connectivity becomes more central to our lives and to the economy, so does the importance of secure and resilient digital infrastructure.

I am pleased that, thanks to new laws, we now have one of the strongest telecoms security regimes in the world. We have introduced a robust new telecoms security framework, through the Telecommunications Security Act and subsequent regulations. The Act placed new obligations on telecoms operators and also created new national security powers, which we have used to issue directions to telecoms operators to control their use of Huawei’s goods and services within the UK’s telecoms networks.

As technologies grow and evolve, we are firmly committed to protecting our networks, shielding our critical national infrastructure and understanding how we should ensure new telecoms networks are designed, built and managed securely.

Following the government’s decision to remove Huawei from UK 5G networks and the need to mitigate the risks of long-term consolidation in the telecoms equipment market, our 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy sets out a plan to ensure the UK has a healthy and competitive telecoms supply chain market.

The strategy is backed by the £250 million Open Networks R&D Fund which will accelerate the adoption of OpenRAN technology, allowing more suppliers to provide equipment and help diversify the market.

I was delighted to announce last week 19 new projects which will be recipients of funding through the Open Networks R&D Fund. These projects were successful in applying for the Open Network Ecosystem (ONE) competition. With £88 million of funding, the ONE projects will help boost the technical capabilities of the UK’s open telecoms ecosystem. The UK will see trials of new mobile tech designed to increase the resilience of the UK mobile network.

To further strengthen our network resilience, we have set an ambition, jointly with the mobile operators, for 35% traffic to be carried over OpenRAN by 2030.

We are strengthening our collaboration with international partners to shape and stimulate the global market, putting the UK at the forefront of the global debate.

I was pleased to open the UK’s first International Telecoms Conference in June, where we announced a new Memorandum of Understanding to deepen our cooperation with Australia. We are also working closely with partners in industry and academia to help ensure the standards shaping our networks are fit for purpose and enable the open and interoperable technologies that we need.

So as the government creates the right policy framework for digital connectivity across the UK, we need to work together to use this as a springboard to drive investment, adoption and innovation, to really level up and boost our economy across the union.

We can only build an economy that delivers for communities across the country together.

With this 3-step plan, I am confident that we will.

Thank you.

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