It’s not just about the pipes
Research for our recent Policy Exchange report – “The Superfast and the furious: Priorities for the future of UK broadband policy” – shows that there are significant gaps in digital capability, for both consumers and small businesses. This may be preventing them from making the best decisions and getting the maximum benefit from internet connectivity, irrespective of the speed of their connection.
We are broadly supportive of the steps the government is taking to drive out fibre optic networks to the majority of the population, to accelerate the roll out of 4G wireless networks, and to deliver on a universal service commitment for broadband. Getting the core infrastructure in place will be important for future competition and innovation, and will be necessary to support mainstream take up. But when it comes to any further spending in this arena, however, we think policymakers need to reflect very carefully before allocating any further cash to large subsidies for superfast infrastructure. Instead the government should focus on helping the 10.8 million people not online – half of whom are over 65 – and do more to help small businesses make the most of the opportunities presented by the internet.
To inform our research and understand general attitudes towards connectivity, we conducted polling with Ipsos Mori of around 2000 consumers and 500 SMEs. We found that four in five people think the internet is something that everyone should be able to get access to, and two thirds of people think it is more important for everyone to have access to a basic broadband service than it is to boost top speeds in select parts of the country.
We also found that about half of people think that most businesses should be ready to take bookings or orders online – but only about a third of small business report that they have the capability to manage online transactions. This is particularly concerning for policymakers as we know that small businesses that embrace the internet grow substantially faster than their offline peers.
Improved levels of internet capability and engagement will ensure that people are realising for themselves the best economic and social outcomes from connectivity. These issues are already on the Go ON UK agenda, but should be a key focus of policy initiatives in pursuit of good broadband outcomes.