As Lockdown is extended for another three weeks, I can’t help reflecting on what an incredible game-changer digital connectivity has been during these lonely and unsettling days.
Suddenly, we’re living our lives online - our democratic processes, our business meetings, our socialising, our teaching and learning, our buying and selling, our comforting and counselling - we’re doing virtually everything through the window on the world that our laptops and smartphones have become.
Back in November, when I hosted the Digital Connectivity Summit, my intention was to turn up the heat on getting our region not just up-to-speed digitally but superfast – and with seamless mobile coverage for everyone, in country, town or city.
I little imagined that the critical role of digital infrastructure in our community would be tested just months later by this shocking virus. But it was. And people and businesses are surviving because of it.
It’s made me all the more determined to get Cambridgeshire & Peterborough plugged in with the best connectivity available. There’s no way I’m going to forget the lessons of these weeks, and I’ll push ever harder to ensure this area is at the front of the UK’s digital development.
Just as businesses once took off where the Penny Post delivered, or where there was a bridge, or a railway stop, today it’s about being connected. Left behind with wind-up internet, squiffy wifi, or a mobile Notspot, you’re going nowhere fast. Or rather, slowly. The digital infrastructure we need – both broadband and mobile reception – has to be top end. And like any other utility, it has to be for everyone.
I’ve got my sights set on nothing less. The Combined Authority’s core ambition is to double the size of our economy by 2030 – and digital hook-up is essential for that, so businesses across this heavily rural county can punch through in an increasingly digital world.
Ultrafast broadband whizzes around Peterborough and, Cambridge, and wheezes more patchily between Cambridge and Huntingdon. It leaves large areas of our region with clunky connections, putting the people who live there at a disadvantage. And that’s not fair because if anyone needs connectivity, it’s surely the people who are the most remote, not the least.
Lockdown has given us all a smack of what isolation means and I’m always conscious that mobile reception is a huge issue for those living in rural areas. While 4G is almost everywhere round Cambridge, offered by no less than three providers, in Fenland, and East Cambridgeshire many premises can’t and don’t receive 4G from any provider.
This has to improve. From Notspot to hotspot, we want 5G and future-now kit for ourselves as residents but also to attract the high-tech businesses that much of our prosperity depends upon. They need lightning data access and good coverage so they can work from anywhere in our region.
And that’s another thing this Lockdown is teaching us about reliable digital infrastructure - working from home isn’t just possible for many, it can also be a good and healthy thing, lessening our reliance on cars, reducing stress in traffic jams, cutting pollution, and lifting quality of life for the villages customarily used by commuters as shortcuts.
In pre-Covid days, we’d log off in case a virus might infect our computers - now we log on in case a virus infects us. This devastating bug is a powerful reminder that digital is the great new utility which we must develop for our future.
But we need better connectivity.
And we need it fast.