By José María Álvarez-Pallete and Mike Fries
The global pandemic has highlighted the UK’s reliance on robust and reliable internet and mobile services. These essential services are providing critical access to food, medicine, emergency assistance, education, entertainment and jobs and are key drivers of the economy.
Now more than ever, this country needs to strengthen these connected services so that they can fulfil the needs of everyone in the UK, regardless of postcode.
Challenges with infrastructure planning approval and regulation have meant that Britain has fallen behind other nations with respect to country-wide broadband coverage and speeds. Indeed, Britain sits towards the bottom of the G7 for average broadband speed, with countries such as Madagascar and San Marino as well as Spain, Portugal and France all ranking higher. This should be unacceptable to everyone.
We are now taking it upon ourselves to improve the state of play, despite some of these obstacles.
Coming together as a brand-new joint venture, Virgin Media and O2 are determined to build a new national connectivity champion for the UK, delivering bigger and better solutions to power the economy and improve critical infrastructure.
We plan to invest as much as £10 billion in improving the UK’s broadband network, technology and services over the next five years. By the end of 2021 we will accelerate 5G rollout to cover more than 100 towns and cities. We will have added an additional one million premises to the 15 million homes and countless businesses that are already gigabit-ready for broadband within twelve months of the merger closing. In addition to the £10bn investment plan, it is our ambition to accelerate broadband investment, connecting a further seven million homes to gigabit-ready networks, well ahead of the government’s current broadband ambition.
This will be transformational for the UK, changing the way homes and offices are connected to the online world and opening up significant new opportunities for growth and innovation.
We are promising today that we’ll continue to turbocharge 5G technology, making it easier than ever before to connect with friends and family, or run your business from the palm of your hand. The combination of gigabit broadband speeds and new 5G mobile will revolutionise all sectors, especially in manufacturing, healthcare, transport, enabling high-end and mission critical connections, anytime, anywhere.
As well as investing in the UK’s digital infrastructure, we want to help society and communities too. At least half of the new gigabit-ready connections will be in areas with low GDP or high unemployment. We will also create around 4,000 new jobs and establish 1,000 apprenticeships to enhance the UK’s digital skills base.
We also want to help UK schools benefit from the digital revolution. We know that rural schools, in particular, can really struggle when it comes to fast broadband and reliable online learning. That’s why we will be offering all state schools connected to our countrywide network a free upgrade to our fastest 1Gbps broadband. Our children are the leaders of tomorrow and the evidence is that schools with better and more reliable internet connections produce better learning environments.
We know digital infrastructure has never been more important and we all know the country needs a boost. We believe that the joint venture between our two companies will help propel the UK’s economic recovery and change lives for the better. By joining forces, Virgin Media and O2 can help move the UK into the digital fast lane. Telefónica and Liberty Global have been invested in the UK for many years and we are here for the long haul.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden have spoken about the importance of getting it right on connectivity. We support their ambitions wholeheartedly and are ready to meet or exceed their goals. Strengthening gigabit broadband and 5G coverage creates jobs, improves productivity and improves the quality of life.
That’s why now is the time to make a step change, widen our ambition for Britain’s digital future, prioritise investment in critical new infrastructure and aim higher for ourselves and the economy. We stand ready to lead the effort.
José María Álvarez-Pallete is CEO and Chairman of Telefónica. Mike Fries is CEO and Vice Chairman of Liberty Global.
This op-ed first appeared in The Times on 5th October 2020