Levelling up agenda can help bridge digital divide

Project Stratum, delivered by Fibrus, is to be extended will see a further 8,500 rural properties connected directly to the fibre network
Thomas O'Hagan

MUCH was made last week of the announcement of new efforts to ‘level up' investment and economic activity across the UK.

A white paper tabled by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove promised a 40 per cent increase in public expenditure on research and development across the regions – an investment welcomed by everyone in the digital sector.

For too long, Northern Ireland and other regional parts of the UK have effectively been digital nomads – the divide must be bridged.

The plan followed an announcement in last year's autumn budget of £49 million in ‘levelling up' funding across Northern Ireland including towards our ailing electric vehicle charging network.

Such infrastructure is crucial if we are to build an economy ready to harness the opportunities presented by digital transformation.

We are moving in the right direction. The recent announcement that Project Stratum, delivered by Fibrus, is to be extended will see a further 8,500 rural properties connected directly to the fibre network.

The recent signing of the Belfast Region City Deal also paves the way for incredible growth in jobs and the economy with a collaborative effort to boost cutting edge sectors such as health and life sciences and advanced manufacturing.

Other projects, such as Armagh city's bid to be the UK's City of Culture in 2025 shows the ambitions of this region.

Groups like Innovation City Belfast, a collaboration between public bodies, private enterprise and academia are working to help deliver on those ambitions by showcasing the region as a hub for growth and a global destination for innovation.

However, these cannot be fully realised without the investment in digital infrastructure that the levelling up agenda promises.

There are lessons in the north-east of England where Sunderland has embarked on a 20-year strategy to become the UK's “most advanced smart city”.

It includes plans for a next generation 5G network across the city, unlocking the power of the Internet of Things to “enhance employment opportunities, business efficiency and growth, helping to secure its prosperous future.”

Similarly, Dundee is levelling up its digital infrastructure as it benefits from the Gigabit City investment programme to connect homes and businesses to the fibre network.

Our innovative, digital and technology sectors are growing. The digital sector alone is worth over £1 billion while one-in-seven job opportunities here are in technology, according to a recent study by Tech Nation.

The Levelling Up agenda is UK-wide, but to truly work, it must not be concentrated in a few commercial centres or major cities – rather benefiting all towns and regions as we aim to bridge the digital divide.

:: Thomas O'Hagan is managing director of b4b Group

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