IT Pro Podcast

Podcast transcript: Can 5G close the digital divide?

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Podcast transcript: Can 5G close the digital divide?

This automatically-generated transcript is taken from the IT Pro Podcast episode 'Can 5G close the digital divide?’. To listen to the full episode, click here.

Adam Shepherd  

Hi, I'm Adam Shepherd.

Jane McCallion

And I'm Jane McCallion.

Adam  

And you're listening to the IT Pro Podcast where today we're talking about the digital divide.

Jane  

Technology plays an essential role in most of our lives, from the jobs we do to the way we unwind. It's easy to feel like it's everywhere. But there are many people in the UK who are still without basic broadband access. This may seem like the definition of a first world problem, but it can have serious implications for people's livelihoods and well being.

Adam  

This so called digital divide is a growing problem in this country and one that the government is under increasing pressure to address. Joining us today to talk about what this issue means for the UK, and how the government and the private sector can work together to tackle it is Cisco's UK CTO, Chintan Patel. Chintan, thanks for coming on.

Chintan Patel 

Thank you for having me. 

Jane  

So regular listeners will know that this is something that comes up a lot in the show, and possibly partly because of me. But what is the state of the UK's connectivity at the moment?

Chintan  

So I think one of the biggest things over the last 12 months has been the fact that connectivity has become something that's an essential for each and every one of us, I think, you know, it was a, it was something that we wanted and needed prior to the pandemic, but actually, the last 12-18 months has shown how critical it has been to, you know, whether it's accessing critical services, you know, keeping kids educated, accessing health care, or simply staying connected with friends and family and being entertained, you know, it's become such a core part of everything that we do, and when you know, our lives are more connected than ever before. And, you know, we've seen that this has been hugely important over the last year, and increasingly will be going forward as well. But as you said, in your opening, you know, we do have a digital divide in the UK, you know, that opportunity to connect isn't evenly distributed, even though, you know, I guess some of the figures we have through some of our research show that although there are high levels of connectivity available, the uptake of services perhaps isn't there currently, 96% of the UK population have access to connectivity in one way, shape, or form, but only 60% use the service. So is that because of affordability? Is that because of access to the types of speeds? Or the technology? Or is it due to skills or lack of skills perhaps. You know, we need to kind of go and have a deeper look at that in terms of how we help more people get connected, given you know, our lives are driven by digital technology more and more.

Jane  

Yeah, I was gonna say presumably, you know, 96 people - 96 people; hopefully it's a bit more than that - 96% of people have access to connectivity. But there's a big difference between the connectivity that I get here in an urban area versus members of my family who live in more rural areas.

Chintan  

Yeah, you're absolutely right. And I think this goes back to, you know, there are a lot of not spots, as it were within the UK. So we have, you know, dense metropolitan areas, which have really good broadband connectivity with very high speed. And you have lots of other places, which perhaps have connectivity, but not to the same extent. And, you know, actually that 96% number is quite interesting, because when you look at the 4%, that perhaps don't have connectivity, that actually equates to about 2.67 million people. So it's not an insignificant sum of people who don't have any access at all. And so, you know, I think there's this point around, you know, let's make sure we get as many people connected as possible. And then, you know, we've seen some of the targets the government's set out in terms of, you know, gigabit broadband to 85% of UK premises by 2025. You know, all of these are going to become so, so important as we go forward.

Adam  

So, as we've previously discussed, in many cases, rural broadband is still lagging behind urban centres. But why is this still the case? You know, given the importance of internet connectivity, and, you know, the development of newer, you know, newer technologies, like fibre optics, and, you know, wider distribution methods for internet, why are rural areas still lagging behind?

Chintan  

I think there's a, I mean, there's a number of, I guess, reasons, both economic, from an opportunity perspective, you know, the ability for service providers to reach communities where perhaps they don't have the volume of customers to justify in some cases the return on investment. There's also, I think, a technological issue in some cases where, you know, in places where you just haven't been able to pull fibre because it's physically impossible to do so. And we need to look at new technologies to help us do that. And, you know, 5G is a great example of that in terms of, you know, where we can't pull fibre can we use spectrum? And can we use it in efficient ways to, to deliver that. And we've we've been involved in some trials over the last few years, with the UK government to actually try and deliver some of these types of capabilities to rural areas. One of the projects was called 5G RuralFirst, which was exactly that, around delivering 5G connectivity to rural areas, and actually creating a testbed and a trial programme to show that, you know, you can get the economic return, you can drive up productivity of those rural economies, which are so vitally important to the UK. But also think about new use cases and things like agritech, in fishing, in different types of industries, where perhaps technology hasn't been used in the way that it has been in many other industries, and where, you know, kind of digitization has, has helped other industries grow or grow their kind of global access to other markets as well. So, you know, we've been, we've been very focused on trying to drive that. And we think if we, if we use technology and digital technology, like 5G, and others and Wi-Fi 6 and other technologies to kind of reduce that kind of digital divide, then, you know, we can get more people into the kind of digital economy going forward.

Jane  

I have heard 5G be proposed previously as an answer to rural broadband issues, or just kind of broadband or connectivity issues, in general, you seem quite positive about it. But from my point of view, I can see a couple of real challenges to it. And I'd like to get your perspective on it. And the first is the way that 5G works, it can be thwarted by walls, which is a bit of a, or can be a bit of a problem. And also the sort of geography of the UK can make it difficult for you to get the signal in certain rural areas. If there's a lot of hills, once again, you've got a problem. Is it going to be that effective? And price is probably my third point, you know, 5G is not cheap, either, the price will obviously come down as it rolls out. But those to me would seem to be not insignificant obstacles to 5G really helping to close the digital divide.

Chintan  

Yeah, I think they're all valid points. And I think this is why, you know, we've been having to do these trials to kind of prove out, one, the technology to overcome some of those physical barriers that exist, and just the laws of physics, which you can't generally get around, which we, you know, we have to, we have to take into account as it were. But also, you know, it's this view that actually, it isn't all just about 5G, it's about finding the right technology for the right use case, and actually meshing together different types of technology to deliver what you're trying to achieve, and what the outcomes specifically is for that particular use case, that industry, etc. And, you know, in some cases, you know, it might not be 5G directly all the way to you in a, in a, in a particular environment in a rural area - maybe it's a combination of things, right, maybe it's 5G backhaul, but it might be Wi-Fi, high speed Wi-Fi 6, you know, directly to you and it's actually these technologies working together. And they're fundamentally built off the same kind of core technology. So we think, actually, when you bring these together, you can get the economics, right, because I think, to your point, the economics have to be there, I think all things being said and done, I think, you know, we've got to make sure that it's affordable for the, you know, the consumer, if you like, of the service and the technology, but then also it's got to be economically viable for the provider of the service as well, and that there is a win-win on all those parties. And I think to your other point, that affordability is something that we do genuinely need to look at, you know, we do all want high speed and we want gigabit and we want, you know, all of those capabilities, but those do come at a price because they require an infrastructure investment from, you know, the providers of that technology. So I think it's both the service providers, you know, our role as the makers of the technology, and, you know, government, the society at large have to come together to think about well, what are the provisions we need to make to enable more people to access it, cause I mean, we know, you know, the benefits that this creates. You know, we've seen, I think the last, as I mentioned earlier, the last four months has really, really proven this out. But, you know, more than half of people now think, you know, investing in connectivity is as important as the other utilities, you know, water, electricity, gas, it's one of life's essentials, now. 

Jane  

Yeah. 

Chintan  

And you know, if you look at, you know, kind of the productivity for the UK economy as well. And you know, we've got a huge small business community across the UK, reliable fast connectivity is going to be really increasingly important for them as we come out of the pandemic as well to kind of continue to not only tap into the local markets, but more broader markets. And we're also seeing a bit of a shift, you know, as a result of the pandemic, in terms of connectivity influencing actually where we choose to live. And, you know, this, this whole remote work, hybrid work experiment, which I think will continue for, you know, as we go forward in hybrid work, as it were, but this idea that work is not a place you go, but it's something you do. And, you know, I've spoken to many of my peers in the industry, who are really looking at a talent pool that is not necessarily local anymore, but it is national. And so, if we have that high speed broadband connectivity to more people, then it will, it will also give people an opportunity to not have to be physically located where their company is based, as it were, but actually tap into that. So I think, you know, there's a knock on impact for local economies, and this kind of levelling up agenda that we've got across the UK to try and drive, you know, skills across UK jobs, opportunities and allow people, irrespective of wherever they are, to tap into different types of jobs and careers.

Adam  

So Chintan, you mentioned infrastructure investment, just now. The UK's 5G infrastructure in particular, is still lagging, I think it's fair to say, a little bit behind other countries in terms of both speeds and coverage. does this indicate a potential barrier to this strategy?

Chintan  

Well, I think we've got, we've done a lot, I think, over the last few years, but I think we do have to continue to invest in that, you know, we look around the world. And obviously, there are a number of countries around the world really accelerating on this front, I think the pandemic naturally slowed rollout down over the last year as service providers focused on kind of keeping essential services up and running. But you know, I do envisage that will, that has really started and will restart kind of the, the, the focus on that. So, you know, I'm optimistic that actually the investments that are going in, and the work that is going on will prove beneficial. But clearly, you know, we've got to, we've got to keep the push on this, because we know that, you know, the number of things that are being connected, for example, to the internet, over the next few years are going to require this level of connectivity going forward, we've seen different types of services, which are now completely reliant on digital connectivity, and things like 5G are going to be so critical to make that happen. I mean, even if you just look over the next couple of years, you know, more traffic will cross the UK, and in fact, the global internet, than did in the last 30 years of the internet. So you can just see the amount and volume of things from a traffic perspective, which is going to require higher bandwidth, because we are now using and getting accustomed to higher fidelity content, if you like, high definition video, high definition audio, and then more immersive experiences. But also, you know, we're going to see billions of more things connected over the next few years, you know, we're going to get to nearly 30 billion things connected to the global internet by 2030. And that's going to be a huge amount of pressure that's going to be put on to the infrastructure, both from a physical connectivity perspective, because we're connecting different types of things now, it's not just laptops, mobile devices, smart cameras, etc. You know, on average, we're going to have over the next few years, anywhere between five and ten connected things on us, as wearables take hold, sensors take hold into our daily lives in terms of everything that we're doing. So all of that's going to require a different kind of set of thinking. And this is why actually, just before actually the late end of 2019, we launched a whole programme of activity, which we've been calling the internet for the future, which is, what does the next generation internet really need to look like? What does the infrastructure need to look like? Because the economics, the technology, we've had to fundamentally rethink it because it, cause it is 30 years old, you know, when we designed the first generation internet. So we've been taking a ground up look at that, with technology all the way from the silicon in terms of how the brains of the infrastructure is rebuilt. So actually thinking about, you know, what scale that we need, looking at the optical infrastructure. So this is the pipes that connect, you know, the backbone of the internet. So, you know, with huge swathes of traffic traversing the world. And then the economics more importantly, that we touched on earlier, you know the price points that the infrastructure needs to grow, to enable that connectivity becomes more important as well. So that coupled with the innovation happening in 5G, and more importantly, the use cases, because, you know, we've seen there's a, there's been a step change in economic impact as a result of some of these transformational technologies. You know, 4G resulted in, I'd say, the smartphone revolution, which completely transformed that kind of mobile experience. And while while 4G transformed that consumer experience, we do fundamentally believe 5G and Wi-Fi 6, and the next iterations of Wi-Fi will transform business in terms of the business applications of it.

Adam  

And I think it's also worth touching on, you know, when we, when we talk about the digital divide, it's not just about things like, you know, oh, can I stream, Netflix, can I, you know, do video calls in high definition, all that kind of stuff, more and more businesses, you know, for the last three, four or five years, have been investing really heavily in cloud services, in SaaS products to power the kind of the core of their business. And that means that if you are in a situation where your internet isn't, you know, high speed enough or reliable enough to access those services with a level of stability, that effectively makes you kind of almost unemployable for businesses whose technology stacks rely on cloud services. You know, for example, if you work in marketing, and you're doing a lot of collaborative work on things like Google Docs, or you need to be, you know, collaborating on client meetings and stuff, and you need to be regularly uploading and downloading files from SharePoint drives, or any kind of content storage medium, that's going to be really, really difficult, if you don't have a certain level of internet access.

Chintan

I couldn't agree more, you know, I think everyone should try and disconnect and try and see, like, you know, during the normal workday, not necessarily, you know, you obviously want to disconnect when you're on holiday, and we recommend that highly for everybody, right, but, you know, actually just trying to do a day's work in today's world, without having any form of connectivity would become near impossible for many people. That's not to say that's universal, because, you know, there are two thirds of jobs around the world are not office based, and, you know, perhaps don't require the same level of digital connectivity. But having said that, for a vast majority, especially in the UK, where we've got a very high services economy, and people who rely on these types of technologies, and that reliance on cloud services, which is, which is fully dependent on connectivity, becomes even more important. And, you know, we know, both that's a productivity impact for the UK, I think it's also, you know, it's the digital skills and the positive impact it will have on people's earnings, you know, all of those aspects, you know, we know that actually, through some of this research that we did, you know, half of those online claim they've used the internet to find employment. So it is one of the primary methods of actually finding a job now, you know, shopping online, we all know, right, you know, has become, you know, essential, we were seeing that shift from offline to online, previous to the pandemic, and it's really just accelerated that. So, you know, now if you need to buy anything, then you're typically looking online first. And so that's, that's essential.

Adam  

I mean, even sectors like hospitality, which, you know, traditionally has been almost exclusively offline and you know, disconnected. Even if you go to a restaurant or a bar now, certainly during the pandemic, but it's looking like this is going to be a kind of continuing trend, you have to place your order via an app. So if you don't have internet access, you know, if the, if the venue doesn't offer free Wi-Fi and you don't have internet on your phone, then that business, that service is just completely cut off from you.

Chintan  

Yes, exactly. And I think you know, those organisations that are going to be successful going forward are the ones that can blend that kind of physical and digital experience in the same way in a kind of easy and seamless manner. I, you know, I also think, you know, if you think that services point you raise is so important. I kind of use the example of, you know, GP appointments, you know, back in 2019 there were 214 million NHS appointments that happened in the UK, only one percent of those were over video. Fast forward, fast forward a year. And we all thought it wouldn't be done and everybody thought perhaps it would never be done. But it has been done. And we've proven we can do it. And actually, for many, it's the preferred way of doing it, the fact that I can now access my GP within a couple of hours if I need to, rather than waiting 10 days for an appointment, that has to be a good thing. Right, that's a, that's a good thing for all parties involved, to be fair, in terms of, you know, being able to see more patients and, you know, we've got a huge backlog, as we know, of patients that need to be seen by our medical staff, and how are we going to scale that? We're going to need to scale that using these types of technologies going forward. So yeah, that point around service, that point around access, I think becomes important. But also maybe a point which, which we kind of alluded to earlier, which was around, you know, maybe somebody not being able to go into somewhere and having access on or internet on their phone. But it's also those skills, and that digital literacy. There are many in society have grown up, you know, think of my parents who didn't have to, and didn't need to use some of the digital tech, you know, in, you know, a year ago, but now, I've had to become savvy, because some of the services, they need to access, the fact that if they did want to go to a restaurant, they need to use an app, to order food, etc, and make a payment means we're having to educate more people in terms of how we do this. So I think that's a, that's another big area that we're going to need to focus in on.

Jane  

And obviously, this can't all be left down to the private sector. So how should the government be working together with the private sector to address the issue of the digital divide and problems with connectivity?

Chintan  

Yeah, I think, you know, this is, this is a societal and collective issue, I think, for us to solve it is, it's everyone has a part to play. You know, we're very supportive of, you know, that kind of industry-government partnership, I think which, an academic partnership, which really makes a big difference in this so you know, our work in actually leading up one of the levelling up goals, which is focused on closing the digital divide, it's one of the goals that the government has set out and led by the Right Honourable Justine Greening, it's, it's a, it's a framework that's connected to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but it's really applied to kind of the levelling up challenges that we've got in the UK, there are 14 of them, you know, around equality and inclusion, having a strong foundation on infrastructure, opportunity, etc. So, you know, I think that's one of the ways, it's not the only way that we can do but you know, investing in things like our Networking Academy, which is, you know, one of the world's largest global online training platforms. And investing in those skills has become really important as well. And, you know, we've got over 330 networking academies in the UK, having trained over half a million people. And we've just announced, kind of a global push on that to deliver access for all effectively and free training on essential IT skills for up to 20 million more people globally over the next five years. And we think, you know, actually pushing this into places which have access to a different demographic is going to be important. So you know, we need to push into places like libraries, we need to push into prisons, we need to push into the police force for cyber training, you know, we need to we need to kind of drive it into different areas of society.

Adam  

So when looking at any public sector initiative, whether that's in partnership with the private sector or as a kind of standalone project, cost is frequently the biggest barrier. So when Labour proposed giving people free broadband access during the last election campaign, they were roundly derided for it. Who should foot the bill for infrastructure and connectivity expansion projects like this?

Chintan  

Well, I think it's a, it's a, it's a broad subject, which I think, you know, merits some deep discussion by all parties, I think there's a, there's something that the government does need to do in terms of making sure there's uniform access available, that it's fair, that it's affordable. And equally, you know, for the providers of the technology to make sure, and providers of those services, that you know, we are collectively delivering the levels of speeds or levels of quality and affordability that will allow people to tap into it. So I think it's, it's a, it's a collective thing that we need to do. It's not to say that it's something that is a problem necessarily for the perhaps, you know, 60, 70% that have access, are using, and it's available to, I think we really need to look at the people who who don't perhaps have access, and also the people that have access, but aren't using it and trying to really get into the issues of why they're not using it, you know, is it genuinely because of affordability? Is it because of reliability, i.e. they can't trust the fact that it's always going to be available so that they can rely on it? Or is it because of skills and, you know, digital literacy, which, which has been the case in many, many, many areas, so, and then tackling it from that basis, I think would make it really viable. You know, from our perspective, I think, you know, we're very focused on trying to drive this and, you know, over the last, over the last several years, we've, we've invested, you know, huge sums in partnership with the UK Government to try and drive digitization projects across the UK. And we've had 20 projects, you know, around the UK, which have been around whether it's high speed Wi-Fi on trains, whether it's, you know, digital rural connectivity, smart cities, etc. And so, you know, we'll continue to invest in that. And I think, you know, it's the partnership between government, academia, the private sector and industry at large, which will, hopefully help to solve this.

Adam  

So you mentioned reliability there. And I just wanted to touch on the UK government's universal service obligation, USO, which is currently set at 10 megabits per second. And that's the minimum level of speeds that UK broadband providers need to guarantee under law. Is this enough, do you think, based on the based on the stuff we've discussed already? You know, the increasing need for digital connectivity, both at home and for work? You know, those rules were drawn up a number of years ago now, before a large part of the massive cloud expansion that we've seen over the last couple of years. Do these, these service obligations need to be revised, do you think in light of these expansions?

Chintan  

I think we have to continually look at those, we have to take an assessment in terms of, you know, where digital society is today versus where it was, you know, so many years ago, when those were drawn up. So, you know, if I look at, and you highlighted this, this very clearly in terms of how much, how many cloud based services that we're using, but it's, it's not even just the individual usage from, from a personal perspective, from a work perspective, you know, we look at our homes now. We have smart appliances, which are constantly going back and forth to the cloud to to get survey data or, you know, answer your questions. We've got smart cameras in our homes now that are helping keep us safe and secure. We have other sensors. So actually, the volume of traffic that is being driven now, and the high definition and high fidelity nature of that means those bandwidth requirements that we had before are fundamentally changing. And, you know, there is a definite need for higher broadband speeds, high bandwidth speeds. But more importantly, you know, greater reliability of those. We'll also see a bit of a shift in terms of those cloud services. You know, do you need to send everything back to the cloud? You know, does some of it actually could some of these things be done closer to the edge, and we're starting to see a little bit of that happening already in the kind of re-architecting of the internet infrastructure, where actually, we're not sending sending all of those workloads to be processed into a data centre, somewhere in the ether, as it were, you know, we are doing some of that closer to the edge for that responsiveness for that bandwidth optimization for delivering that kind of digital service. So we're seeing organisations, you know, really looking at re-architecting their, their environments to make that happen. So, yeah, look, I think, you know, given where we're going with, you know, advances in AR and VR technology, and other kind of more high bandwidth experiences, then that's going to become more important going forward.

Jane  

So Chintan, where do you think things are going in this area over the next couple of years? Say, five years?

Chintan  

So look, I think we're in for an exciting ride. You know, we're one of the internet's optimists and actually, I think, you know, technology is going to play such a fundamental role in everything that we do. You know, you just look at today, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, and everything in between, you know, we are digitally anchored to technology in one way, shape, or form, and hopefully, it's making hopefully, it's making our lives a little bit better and more efficient every day. And you know, that that's our goal. And I think if if technology can help us improve our lives, the way we live them, be connected, be safe, secure, in everything that we do then that can only be a good thing. And I think, you know, I often get asked what does the future look like? And I think the truth is, we don't really know. But you know, what we can do is we can we can pattern match from what's happened in the last few years and kind of look at where, where will technology end up. And you can see some of the innovations happening across the industry, whether it's in connectivity, whether it's in travel, whether it's in kind of the digital economy, and I think the UK is at a at a pivotal moment, we've got an amazing opportunity, both socially and kind of technologically to lead the world in a lot of these areas with some of the best academic research going on around the world. And really bringing the full economy and everybody along with us and not leaving anybody behind.

Adam  

Well, while we could talk about this for another hour, I'm sure that's all we've got time for this week, I'm afraid. Thank you once again, Chintan for joining us.

Chintan  

Thank you very much for having me. 

Jane  

You can find links to all of the topics we've spoken about today in the show notes and even more on our website, itpro.co.uk.

Adam  

You can also follow us on Twitter at @ITPro as well as Facebook and LinkedIn.

Jane  

Don't forget to subscribe to the IT Pro Podcast wherever you find podcasts and never miss an episode. And if you're enjoying the show, leave us a rating and a review. We'll be back next week with more analysis from the world of IT. But until then, goodbye.

Adam  

Bye.

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