Building a backbone for UK digital innovation

How can we keep ahead of the curve as the digital revolution picks up pace?

Strong headwinds and economic challenges – from supply chain issues to slowdowns – have battered businesses in the last few years. Running a successful business requires those in charge to stay ahead of the curve. The problem? That curve keeps getting steeper.

Competition is constantly rising, and uncertainty is everywhere. The last couple of years have shown how important it is that technology keeps us connected – not just for the economy and the businesses within it to thrive, but so that we can thrive as humans too. 

“The more businesses can be connected and exploit digital technologies, the greater the chances of us increasing our productivity,” says Ed Stainton, director of major government at BT’s Enterprise unit. That’s vital at a time when the UK languishes behind its competitors on the international stage: the average output per worker in the G7 countries excluding the UK is 13% higher than the UK’s average output per worker.

The reasons for that comparative sluggishness are varied. But connectivity is key. “We still have some way to go on the digital infrastructure side to make sure we have the best-connected economy,” says Stainton. Ensuring our digital backbone is sturdy is crucial to the future success of the country, he argues. 

“Digital technologies allow businesses to run in more efficient ways,” says Stainton. “There are still pockets out there where businesses are quite behind the digital curve. And to be a really modern, forward-leaning society and global player, technology has to be at the heart of that.”

The keystone for growth

Digital technologies have become more important in the last few years as their potential expands. “There is so much more you can now do with digital technologies, which then demands a greater reliance on the underlying infrastructure,” says Stainton – pointing to the example of edge computing as integral to maximising the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) for companies, speeding up queries and response times through low-latency, high-speed architecture. 

But it’s not just businesses that are increasingly reliant on an advanced digital infrastructure. “Even as consumers, we’re now using huge amounts of data, whether uploading to the cloud, sharing images and that sort of thing,” says Stainton. 

There is so much more you can now do with digital technologies, which then demands a greater reliance on the underlying infrastructure

The shift to cloud computing and storage exerts a huge demand on the underlying infrastructure that keeps us connected, both because of the increased volumes of data servers are expected to handle, and because of their always-on nature. It’s also a technology that businesses feel can help them unlock their potential. 

“We’ve seen a lot of businesses adopt a cloud-native, cloud-first strategy,” says Stainton. However, that requires much more assurance of continued uptime and safety for the data stored in the cloud – something that can only be provided in a country with significant, sturdy digital infrastructure.

A strong technological backbone is at the core of digital innovation. It’s the driver of modernisation, and the spark that can transform key industries and boost growth within the UK digital economy. And it’s becoming ever more important in all our lives. 

“The pandemic was an interesting inflection point, for the importance of the digital infrastructure, reaching into people’s homes rather than just purely business-to-business infrastructure,” says Stainton. “We had to go pretty much overnight from that B2B environment to a fully disaggregated model, where everybody needs to connect and have highly reliable bandwidth and speed.”

Never standing still

One of the key providers of that digital backbone that keeps the country standing is BT. “Our heritage is as an infrastructure player,” says Stainton. For more than 100 years since its foundation as the General Post Office, BT has been involved in providing and maintaining critical national infrastructure for the government. 

BT was there to lay the first subsea cable to connect the frontlines to the home front in the First World War, and invented early warning blimps in the Second World War. The Ministry of Defence and the police rely on its uptime for critical communications, as well as thousands of businesses across the country and millions of customers.

But ensuring we’re all kept connected and at the bleeding edge of innovation means never standing still. “We’re investing quite heavily in this space,” says Stainton. “We feel that as a national telco and a national champion, we should be stepping up and helping in those key areas.”

The UK shows promising levels of innovation, scoring above the EU average on the European Commission’s European Innovation Scoreboard 2021. The next generation of digital infrastructure provides an exciting opportunity to supercharge the nation’s future outputs.

Connected cargo

One example of how a digitally-enabled Britain can be bolstered by its smart backbone is BT’s work supporting British ports in the post-Brexit economy. At the Port of Tyne, BT has partnered with the owners to install a new 5G private network and other cutting-edge surveillance and smart technology. 

The installation of 5G at the port enables its owners and customers who pass their products through the Tyne to take advantage of technology, including robotics, autonomous vehicles, AI and internet of things (IoT) applications.

BT’s private network, installed across the Port of Tyne area, provides wireless 5G cellular coverage – both indoors and outdoors. It keeps data secure but offers ultra-low latency processing that can ensure smart meters and IoT sensors can monitor and track processes for efficiency, giving those running the port insight into what’s working – and what’s not. Every crane that moves cargoes can be tracked; every shipping container offloaded can be monitored as it moves through the port. 

“5G is big news for our industry,” says Stainton. “It’s not necessarily just increased bandwidth, it fundamentally means we can provide agile, customised network experiences to our customers, which, in turn, means that they can start delivering new forms of digital transformation above where they are today.”

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