The National Infrastructure Commission has given the UK’s Autumn Budget the thumbs up, but will the shiny new roads take much needed funding away from the country’s quest towards the digital economy?
While it might be a boring topic, roads and railways received a lot of attention during the budget announcement. But this is one of the bigger concerns for the NIC, which is wondering whether the a lack of private investment in such schemes would detract from government investment in other areas, most notably, next generation technologies for communications and energy.
“Today’s Budget includes a number of welcome measures for infrastructure – but the real test will be next year’s Spending Review and, crucially, the National Infrastructure Strategy that the Chancellor has promised,” said Sir John Armitt Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission.
“This strategy should bring together the roads funding from this Budget with longer-term funding for cities and projects like Northern Powerhouse Rail and Crossrail. And it should include access to full fibre broadband and greater use of renewable sources for our energy.”
The budget, which was unveiled on Monday, featured plans to hold the internet giants accountable to pay more tax in the UK, as well as a £1.6 billion commitment to support the Industrial Strategy and R&D funding, including technologies from AI, future manufacturing, nuclear fusion and quantum computing. An additional £200 million from the National Productivity Investment Fund will also be pointed towards various schemes to encourage the rollout of fibre infrastructure throughout the UK, most notably in rural regions with primary schools to be the first to get special attention.
Looking specifically at the National Productivity Investment Fund, investments in fibre and 5G will increase to £715 million between 2019 and 2021, though whether this is enough to keep the UK on track in the global digital economy remains to be seen. The ambition set out in July in The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review targets a nationwide full fibre network by 2033. Alongside the Budget, the government is publishing consultations to mandate gigabit‑capable connections to new build homes.
The consultation, which is being led by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, will aim to amend the Electronic Communications Code (EEC) to place an obligation on landlords to facilitate the deployment of digital infrastructure when they receive a request from their tenants, while also enabling telcos to use magistrates courts to gain entry to properties where a landlord fails to respond to requests for improved or new digital infrastructure. The EEC is starting to look like a very large stick for the telcos to swing around and force people to do anything they want.
What is slightly concerning is a lack of attention for 5G. In the budget document on the HM Treasury website, 5G is actually only mentioned once.
What is worth noting is this budget might actually mean nothing in a couple of months. Hammond has given himself adequate breathing room with a no-deal Brexit scenario looking increasingly likely, stating it would be back to the drawing board should the worst-case scenario become a reality.